A Dangerous Method (2011) ★★★
Dir: David Cronenberg, Ger/Can, 99 mins
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortenson, Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel
David Cronenberg and the body horror sub genre have become as symbiotic as the fusion between man and virus that so regularly populate his films. Early output such as parasitic horror Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) were no holds barred but with a satirical streak reminiscent of George Romero’s zombie films. Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) followed the drastic physical and psychological disintegration of the individual, characters whose fates are mapped through dabbling with untold technological and genetic forces.
Psychological duality has also been a Cronenberg mainstay, best illustrated in Dead Ringers (1988) and the underrated Spider (2002). It is a theme he has returned to in recent mainstream additions A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Viggo Mortenson stars in both as men who take on another persona for different purposes. Period drama A Dangerous Method may seem a strange fit for Cronenberg but with this idea in mind it becomes obvious where the attraction lies.
Based on Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method recounts the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and their opposing theories in the field of psychiatry. Jung takes on Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) as a patient and then mistress, relations becoming increasingly fractured once she begins to conduct her own research influenced by both men in equal measure.
Placing A Dangerous Method as period drama may well do it a disservice. For me personally this genre conjures up the dirge of Merchant Ivory, films swamped with so much delicate social etiquette that the characters spend an age walking around on egg shells before matters are finally resolved. Although the backbone of the film is formed by the dynamic between Jung and Spielrein there is more vitality here due to the mental sparring played out between the two and the eventual usurpation of teacher by pupil. Despite this the film only truly comes to life in the scenes between Freud and Jung, mentor and heir apparent. At first they’re expansive debates spur each other on but as opinions are galvanised horns are locked. With contrasting takes on the unconscious and the stern, pragmatic Freud’s dismissal of Jung’s justification of religion and myths as “magic” a rift grows between the two. Unfortunately there are not enough of these verbal jousts and Mortenson’s Freud is relegated to what amounts to an extended cameo.
Surprisingly Knightley outshines Fassbender and Mortenson. Initially her performance jars. When Spielrein is taken in by Jung she is catatonic and Knightley overplays every manner and tic with a ridiculous jutting jaw line. The characters transformation after this is engrossing as Spielrein gradually switches from mouse to cat over the course of the affair. She becomes a young woman who knows her own mind and influences both men’s perspectives as much as they inspire her. Fassbender is more restrained as Jung, a closeted man dedicated to his study, passionate in its defence but one who interestingly only arrives at self-contemplation once all is lost.
A Dangerous Method is handsomely shot and well acted but by emphasising the romantic arc to drive the film it partially sacrifices the debate between Jung and Freud, the main fascination. As expected from a director of Cronenberg’s stature this is always watchable, just on this occasion unremarkable considering the historical scope.