- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
here’s only one thing I can guarantee you’ll take away from “A Dangerous Method,” and that’s, for better or worse, a whole new opinion of Keira Knightley. Years from now, when people dissect her career, I believe this movie will be recognized as the one where it all changed and she proved she was more than just a pretty face. Mind you, the “years from now” part is key, because she’s received virtually zero critical recognition for this work, which should perhaps not be all that surprising. When an artist we think we know unexpectedly delivers this kind of fearless, ferocious work, it can be easy to dismiss as “ridiculous” or “overacting.” She rants and raves and stutters and does something with her jaw that could only be found in a David Cronenberg film. It’s polarizing, like great performances can be, and unfortunately many viewers won’t move past what she does here to see the bigger picture.
Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, who in 1904 is admitted by her mother to the Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich for bouts of hysteria. She finds herself in the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who, unusually for the time, uses the “talking method” of treatment. These days we call it psychoanalysis. Slowly, Jung helps Sabina to realize the roots of her problems and the pair forms a friendship. Enter Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a free-thinking, cocaine-sniffing psychoanalyst who encourages Jung to explore a sexual relationship with Sabina, which Jung does, complicating his own psyche, as well as his marriage to Emma (Sarah Gadon). Perhaps the only person that can help him is his mentor and father figure, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose views only make the situation that much more complex, as does Sabina’s own interest in psychoanalysis, at which she herself is becoming more and more adept.
That’s a sort of thumbnail sketch of “A Dangerous Method,” but one can only do it an injustice by putting down into a paragraph what it’s “about.” Welcome to the world of director David Cronenberg, whose movies more often than not demand repeated viewings and further study for deeper understanding. This one is no exception. For the first half hour, Knightley’s antics aside, one wonders if the movie will ever go anywhere, but around the time Cassel shows up, “A Dangerous Method” shifts gears into something wholly absorbing (a second viewing revealed that first half hour as good as the remainder). Stuff like therapy, psychoanalysis, psychology and so forth are such commonplace ideas today that one doesn’t give a lot of thought to the time in which such ideas and theories were developed, and the difficulty these people had in charting these untested waters.
As a result, the characters in “A Dangerous Method” seem deeply insecure, often prone to questioning themselves as well as one another. Yet there’s always an implied respect amongst these people, as if they know, above all else, that the work they’re doing could be of enormous benefit to the human race. Now, I raved about Knightley because she deserves to be raved about, and because few others have. Fassbender, however, is equally excellent and the film’s true anchor. I’d go out on a limb and suggest that Cronenberg likely identified with the character, but that limb might break. Regardless, make another notch in Fassbender’s acting bedpost, because here he leads by allowing everyone else to shine. Rarely does it feel like he owns the individual scenes, even though it’s his character that serves as the film’s through line. Mortensen doesn’t have quite as much screen time as the other two, but when he’s onscreen he makes a sturdy impression (always with a cigar), and this might be a side of the actor we’ve never really seen before. Cassel, whose role amounts to an extended cameo, is hypnotic. I’d like to see an entire movie with him playing Gross.
The movie, based on a stage play by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay, is exceedingly talky, and although there’s plenty of care and thought given to the look of the proceedings, it’s unquestionably a movie about words and ideas. Much of this is introduced through letter writing, which was a common manner of communication at the time. According to Cronenberg, if you lived in Zurich, the mail was picked up and delivered seven or eight times a day, so if you wrote someone a letter in the morning, you expected a reply in the afternoon. Much of the basis for this film came from actual correspondence between the people portrayed in the movie, and Cronenberg and his team went to great lengths to be as accurate and as true to life as possible on nearly every level of the film.
David Cronenberg is a filmmaker I’ve been following for probably 25 years. It’s been a huge pleasure watching him shift and change and move into new and different areas, while often finding new ways to explore the same themes from different angles. He says that he approaches each new film as though he’s never made a movie before, but I think he may be fibbing just a bit. “A Dangerous Method” is his third film with producer Jeremy Thomas, whom Cronenberg had the good sense and experience to hand-pick for this project, knowing that Thomas would be the perfect guy to put it together. Their previous two films were “Naked Lunch” and “Crash” (the one with James Spader and Holly Hunter; not the one that won Best Picture). This movie sits comfortably next to those other two, and the trio would make an ideal little marathon of bizarre and off-kilter psychosexuality.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
There are few directors that are able to give as clear an insight into the filmmaking process as David Cronenberg. As challenging as his films are, equally stimulating are his measured, insightful talks on laserdiscs, DVDs, and now Blu-rays. Take note aspiring filmmakers: a round of Cronenberg commentary tracks is worth a year of film school. They become an essential part of the viewing experience, and after listening to this track, my appreciation for “A Dangerous Method” probably tripled. Additionally, there’s a 30-minute AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar (i.e. an on-camera interview) with Cronenberg in which he talks almost exclusively about this film. Again, a wealth of information, although there were some thoughts espoused in the piece that were nearly identical to words used on the commentary. Finally, there’s a short puff piece “Making Of” and the film’s theatrical trailer.