David Cronenberg has been gradually shifting his focus from body-horror to more conventional fare in the last decade or so. His last two films Eastern Promises and A History Of Violence (both also starring Mortensen) were far more mainstream pieces in comparison to the maggot-birthing, acid-spit dribbling antics of The Fly with which he made his name.
A Dangerous Method is yet a further step into the realms of respectability, a talky period piece which sees the early pioneers of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) square off against each other. But what should have been an intellectual tour de force is let down by a script that doesn’t force conflict often enough and for all its luminary acting talents is curiously inert.
In early 20th century Switzerland Carl Jung, a young student of Sigmund Freud begins to treat an intellectually gifted but mentally disturbed patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) but as his relationship begins to become more than strictly professional he starts to believe that some of Freud’s theories don’t fully explain her condition and formulates some of his own.
The most obvious and most divisive point for viewers will be Keira Knightley. She’s already a source of polarisation among critics and audiences alike and if anything her disturbingly physical performance in A Dangerous Method will split opinion even further. Steeped in a thick Russian accent, she gurns, twitches and writhes so much that her already prominent chin looks like it might actually detach from her face. Some may find that too much to swallow – it’s an all or nothing performance but successful or not, she should at least be applauded for considerable professional bravery.
Viggo Mortensen is a surprisingly good if unusual fit for Sigmund Freud. He’s silkily persuasive and delightfully sardonic and when he’s opposite Fassbender the results are electric –each trying to mentally outmanoeuvre the other without acknowledging that they’re even playing a game.
Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between and Mortensen has little time to make any kind of headway, Cronenberg instead opting to focus on the relationship between Speilrein and Jung which is far less interesting.
“Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” says Freud to Jung onboard a ship as they approach New York – a tantalising glimpse of the psychological upheaval they’re about to unleash upon an unsuspecting America, but one which is disappointingly never realised in the film’s running time.