A Dangerous Method tends to have a more provocative title than tonal mode, but it nevertheless plumbs intriguing psychological ground that does not often find its way into movies or the minds of people who watch them. Documenting the friendly-romantic-professional relationship between the psychologist triumvirate of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the turn-of-the-century period piece spans an integral passage of time in the development of psychological practice that unfolds more through dark-roomed conversation than key events.
All members of the cast (including Vincent Cassel in a brief appearance) realize the material completely, yet the film’s position as an adaptation of the stage play, “The Talking Cure,” leaves much to be desired in terms of cinematic distinction. In a film that spends substantial time promoting the detrimental nature of expressive repression, David Cronenberg practices a disappointingly and uncharacteristically high level of restraint in his filmmaking. The direction and narrative thread are surprisingly dry and plain, leaving all responsibility for success on the shoulders of the dialogue and the cast—a heavy burden when it comes to such complex subject matter.
As far as the cast goes, Fassbender is as masterful in the role of Jung as he is in any of his other myriad roles in 2011, Mortensen is underused in the limited presence of Freud, and Knightley has been severely overlooked and underrated as Spielrein. In the case of this film, a brief montage would have been effective in transitioning Spielrein from initial hysteric to eventual levelheaded psychologist, yet Knightley manifests both states with deft proficiency. She matches Fassbender in every beat of every scene they share, and skillfully inhabits a strong female role in a year that was full of them.
The fascinating conversations that unfurl between the brilliant-minded characters keep the interest level thriving, but also have a propensity to break the narrative into a somewhat disjointed succession of compelling ideas and bits, rather than a cohesive whole. This leads to muddled thematic substance and a lackluster emotional response to a profession of love at the film’s conclusion. One also wonders whether the presence of these progressive ideas provides anything more contextually insightful about these thinkers that cannot be learned in a Psych 101 class. While Cronenberg has always leaned towards general detachment, it seems harmful here; particularly in unnecessarily tame sex scenes that should exhibit strong expression, as they are life-changing developments for the characters, their respective psyches, and psychological study as a whole.
Regardless of a fairly early dramatic plateau, A Dangerous Method remains captivating throughout. It has garnered 4 wins and 15 nominations this awards season. It is currently playing at the Century 14 Downtown and Regal’s High Ridge 8. It is rated R for sexual content and brief language.