The friendship and ensuing rift between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is the heart of David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” a surprisingly tame and talky period piece from a director best known for his high-art gruesomeness (“The Fly,” “Dead Ringers”). The talkiness derives from screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure,” which in turn is based on John Kerr’s 1994 non-fiction book “A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein.”
Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, was a Russian-Jewish woman originally under the care of Jung in 1904 at the Burgholzi hospital outside Zurich. Using Freud’s methods, he was able to eliminate her seizures and hysteria. Though married, he also entered into an affair with her. Spurned by him, she became a patient of Freud’s, eventually becoming a prominent psychoanalyst in her own right. There’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere, if you can find it.
The casting of Fassbender and Mortensen is certainly offbeat. (A hypothetical ad line might read: “Psychoanalysis just got hunky!") The performers are proficient at playing historical figures without turning into waxworks, especially Mortensen, whose sly enactment of Freud’s low-key superciliousness is the film’s highlight. His best moment comes when he and Jung are about to arrive by ocean liner in New York to attend a conference and Freud chuckles, “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?”
Low point would be Knightley’s hysterical opening sequences in which she appears to be trying to trying to contort herself into a Moebius strip. Overacting this gross can only have been enabled by a director. Didn’t Cronenberg look at the rushes? Or did he think he was back in “Dead Ringers” territory? Knightley’s performance calms down eventually, and a good thing, too. If she maintained that early pace, she would have burned up the couch and herself along with it. Grade: B- (Rated R for sexual content and brief language.)