A Dangerous Method feels like a conservative filmmaking departure from David Cronenberg’s usual darkly unsettling, if shocking affair, replacing reality-morphing, mind-bending scenarios with character-driven performances in a period setting. This sobering, if more mature film from the King of Venereal Horror almost takes a step back from the introspective insanity of his past work, and questions the origins of madness, with a look at the birth of psychoanalysis and its tenets of innate and irrational drives – and it’s a cerebral cinematic affair.
Driven young doctor, Dr Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is sent a challenging new mental patient in the attractive and highly astute Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who harbours masochistic spanking desires. Jung uses his mentor Dr Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) new method of psychological theory called Psychoanalysis, and the story follows the intense relationship between the two medics as this theory develops, and how they both fall under newly appointed psychoanalyst Spielrein’s spell.
As all Cronenberg fans can expect, the complex ‘love’ triangle tale explores some meaty, existence-affecting issues using a dialogue-loaded approach. As composed and compelling as Fassbender is as Jung, it requires the usual inject of Cronenberg insanity to kick-start any thrill and intrigue: Some might find Knightley’s nervous disposition as Spielrein either utterly fascinating or a complete turn off – plus her odd gurning and Eastern European accent that comically fluctuates in equal measure. Still, it could be argued that this is some of Knightley’s finest work to date as her character morphs into a completely different human being at the end – like watching a pupa blossom into an alluring butterfly.
As worthy as Fassbender is in this, it’s Mortensen’s welcome return to the screen after three years absence in the transforming role of Freud, the seemingly austere and matter-of-fact Austrian neurologist, who steals each scene, in a battle of wit and intelligence that is simply beguiling to watch. The whole tête-à-tête meetings of the mind are a heavy factor of the film’s content, and although the performances are exquisite, they still require undivided attention to grasp the concepts and stop the interest from waning. Cronenberg challenges your disposition with words rather than the uglier visuals of his past work.
The ever-dynamic Vincent Cassel is also brilliantly cast as the Cronenberg trademark sinister antagonist, Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Gross, present to upset the period niceties and repressed demeanour, acting as another plot catalyst in some respect. However, the momentum of the film’s ideas loses steam as Cronenberg’s script later thins out and concentrates more on Jung and Spielrein’s affair, watering down the stimulating sense of neurosis the story induces.
A Dangerous Method is a solid, serious piece of work that Cronenberg ought to be recognised for in this stage of his career. It does rely heavily on a strong cast of actors – showing its play origins, and an even stronger investment in its psychological critique from the viewer to draw the latter into the inherently fascinating subject matter, so that it is not just watched for its sexual titillation.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie