The subject of psychology's sordid history is unquestionably a fascinating one. From Sigmund Freud's constant butting of heads with the medical community over his radical theories on the human mind and sexuality, to Carl Jung's own butting of heads with Freud, who acted as both his mentor and greatest rival at various points in his career, there is more than enough internal drama among the early psychological community to make for an amply compelling dramatic film. It is curious, then, that David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is so lacking in compelling drama. The characters and situations are all there, but for much of this film's run time, the stakes seem remarkably low.
Some might point to Cronenberg's decision to work with playwright Christopher Hampton in adapting his stage play, The Talking Cure, as the primary issue. That story focuses less on the core history of psychology, and more on Jung's interaction with a young Russian woman named Sabrina Speilrein, who began as an early patient of his as began testing out Freud's therapy methods, and eventually became his lover. In truth, that story is an absolutely fascinating one, in that it explores the testing of boundaries between patient and doctor in a time when psychology was only barely tolerated as actual medical science.
More accurately, the issue appears to be that Cronenberg more or less ditched much of the story's more historical elements in hyperfocusing on Jung and Speilrein's relationship. Played here by Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley, respectively, the vast bulk of the film's screen time is dedicated to these two feeling one another out, so to speak. When we first meet Sabrina, she's a psychotic mess, barely able to form a sentence without jutting her lower jaw out into painful-looking exaggeration, and completely unable to reconcile the systematic abuse by her father with her own strange sense of pleasure in that abuse. As the trailers have made abundantly clear, Sabrina was, in truth, a sadomasochist, a submissive in a time when things like bondage and domination were considered an irreconcilable taboo. That fact plays into their later "therapy sessions," where their sexual attraction toward one another enmeshes with Jung's distant-eyed floggings of Sabrina that seem as cathartic as they are erotic to her.
That relationship comes to greatly damage the relationship between Jung and Freud, who start out early in the film as co-admirers of one another who become fast friends. Despite Jung's Protestant background and Freud's Jewish heritage, the two share many professional and personal interests. But not long after meeting Freud, Jung is asked to take into his care a former colleague named Otto Gross. Played by Vincent Cassel, Gross is a hedonist, a man bent on indulging in all the physical pleasures of life with no regard for morals or his own sanity. Freud famously kept strange company in his Vienna days, and Gross is perhaps the ultimate example of that. It quickly becomes apparent that Jung has no idea how to treat this man, and in fact, Gross ultimately ends up treat him, encouraging Jung to satiating his desires for Sabrina with no regard for Jung's wife and family. When the nature of their relationship becomes apparent, Freud and Jung quickly turn to rivals.
And yet that neither that rivalry nor the friendship it stemmed from are fully explored in A Dangerous Method. Part of the problem is that Hampton's script covers such a wide swath of time that the audience is forced to follow along as the film jumps all willy-nilly from point to point. An example: early in the film, Jung is called off to serve his mandatory military service in the middle of treating Sabrina. She is furious, and curses him for abandoning her. That particular piece of drama spans exactly one scene. Jung is gone. Sabrina is furious. Then a scene later, Jung walks back in, practically blurting out, "Honey, I'm home!" in the process.
Other key story elements, like Jung's constant butting of heads with Freud over Jung's fascination with mysticism and parapsychology are only barely touched on, and appear in the story seemingly out of nowhere. We have no idea why Jung has this fascination, he just does, and we are expected to simply understand this. Likewise, the differences in class between Jung and Freud are similarly brushed over (Jung's wealthy wife and accompanying status evidently never sat well with Freud) as intriguing possibilities for storytelling, but never materialize.
Instead many of these fights and quibbles are played out through narrated letters, written between the two men. Some of these exchanges are indeed fascinating, but they never convey the emotion behind them. The only real emotion of the film appears when Jung and Sabrina interact, and depending on how you take to Knightley's performance, they may either be incredible or insufferable. There is nothing subtle about Knightley's Sabrina. She's a bundle of nervous twitches, mannerisms, and shrieking early on, and that only recedes a bit as the film wears on. She's utterly convincing as this deeply disturbed woman, but her presence is nonetheless vexing to observe on screen. It's one of those performances that may find itself nominated for awards and derided by critics all at once. For my part, I was able to take it, but I could hear others around me grumbling every time she came on screen.
Of no question is the quality of Fassbender's performance as Jung, nor Viggo Mortensen as Freud. The two are both wonderful actors, and they play to the mentor/protege nature of the pair's relationship brilliantly. Fassbender conveys Jung's deeply pent up desire and subsequent turmoil with just the right amount of repression, while Mortensen's Freud avoids all the annoying archetypal mannerisms actors tend to pick up when trying to play the father of psychology. Yes, he smokes his cigars, refuses to stop talking about the symbology of the penis in dreams, and what not. But the performance itself is so coy, so wonderfully low-key, that you can easily see how Jung became enraptured with the man's methods. These two are as good as it gets on-screen.
It's just a shame those performances aren't driving a more interesting movie. Cronenberg would seem a fascinating choice to direct A Dangerous Method, given his previous films' constant exploration of repression, emotion, and their nightmarish symbolism. And yet, he avoids imbuing the film with any of his trademark style, instead choosing to remain at a distance from his subjects. The result is a positively attractive looking film with great actors giving great performances, but without a story to match.