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United Kingdom/Germany/Canada/Switzerland 2011
Directed by
David Cronenberg
98 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Dangerous Method, A

Synopsis: The story of the rocky relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) beginning around 1904 and concluding just before the outbreak of World War I and the role in it played by Jung’s patient, Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly).

A Dangerous Method is one of those films that leaves you with precious little other than a lot of questions. Flat-out bad films don’t do that. You simply write them off. But when a fleet of top drawer professionals misfire you want to know why.

The first question you’ll want to ask is:  “Why Kiera Knightley?” Looking like a catwalk version of Winona Ryder, Knightley may be photogenic but in the acting stakes Meryl Streep she’s not. So why would anyone cast her in the lead of a serious-minded film about Jung and Freud, ask her to play first a mad woman, then a lady “seekoanalyst” with a taste for S&M and expect her to do it all with a German-inflected Russian accent? From the opening scene of her teeth gnashing, hand-wringing histrionics she fails to convince and if, mercifully, she none-too-soon morphs into something less nerve-wracked, every scene that she is in, and that is many, suffers from her lack of credibility and that risible accent. Had anyone even heard of voice coaching?

The second is: “So what was Cronenberg thinking?” The director who has built his reputation on a solid output of cultish excess, oozing bodily fluids and multi-dimensional derangement seems to have swallowed a vast quantity of Valium so soporifically tasteful is this, his first film since the disturbingly violent Eastern Promises of 2007. Yes, he is dealing with matters of sexual repression and dysfunctionality but, Ms Spielrein’s fondness for a good spanking aside, it is in a purely notional way. A Dangerous Method is pretty much your straight-ahead costume drama. Which is not to say that Cronenberg shouldn’t have a crack at such fare but for the love of God, surely he could have made it more interesting than this!

The third is “Who wrote this plod?” The answer to that is noted British playwright Christopher Hampton who based the script on his play, The Talking Cure, which was in turn based on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method. Most will know Hampton’s work from the Stephen Frears' 1988 version of Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons. I have never heard of Sabina Spielrein but assume (as one does) that in at least its broad strokes the story of her breakdown, saucy extra-marital affair with Jung, and apprenticeship under Freud are factually correct. This, or at least the extra-marital affair, is potentially interesting material but Hampton on the one hand lards it with slabs of psychological shop talk and on the other has the characters segue unevenly from flights of literary prose to Noël Coward-like staccato exchanges, an approach which might have worked on stage but doesn’t in this context. And somewhat frustratingly, although the familiar catch cries of Freud’s teachings get an airing, we find out little about those of Jung except obliquely through Freud’s pointed trivializing of them.

The final question is: “Why did I (or should you) bother?” “Curiosity” is the only the only answer that comes to mind. Expect to be disappointed.  Although. I enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s Freud and Michael Fassbender was perfectly adequate as Jung, neither impressed me as portraits of the real historical figures. Both actors are up to the mark in playing turn-of-the-century middle class males, but the results are no more than generic. The film’s one unmixed asset is the appealingly picture-postcard view of turn-of-the-century Vienna and Zurich provided by Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, and a top drawer design team. All very easy on the eye (and how un-Cronenberg is that?) but frankly A Dangerous Method is the dullest historical romance I’ve seen since 2009’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.

It’s not just Ms. Spielrein who should have been spanked.




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