Probably the most disappointing film of the festival, this – in my eyes, Cronenberg’s track record is nigh-on flawless, and unlike so many horror directors of his generation time hasn’t dulled his knack for getting under people’s skin, with some his most recent films (Eastern Promises and A History of Violence in particular) being among his best. So my hopes were high for this marriage of a fascinating subject (the birth of psychoanalysis), a great cast (Michael London Film Fasstival and Viggo Mortensen in particular), and one of my favourite directors in A DANGEROUS METHOD.
With such a pedigree behind it, what went wrong? It’s hard to say: A DANGEROUS METHOD is just a tepid, deeply average film, with one, egregiously terrible aspect that drags into down into the just plain bad category.
In the early part of the 20th century Carl Jung (Fassbender) tries out Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) controversial new treatment of psychoanalysis on the disturbed young woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), admitted after demonstrating compulsive behavior and undergoing violent fits. The treatment proves successful, and Sabina embarks on a career as a psychoanalyst herself. However, she and Jung have embarked on a tumultuous affair, one facilitated by the arrival and persuasive powers of committed polygamist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) – this affair leads to a number tensions and recriminations between Jung and Freud, by now both his friend and intellectual rival.
A DANGEROUS METHOD was adapted from a stage play, and it really shows. It’s an extremely talky screenplay – understandably, given the film’s protagonists – but the conversations are surprisingly lifeless and dull – there are also a number jarring shifts between time periods that would work a lot better on stage than on screen. We seem to always jump forward in time by several years every time the story begins to get interesting.
Cronenberg doesn’t utilize the camera to show us anything that we would have been prevented from seeing on stage – for example, the frequent dream sequences that are described – and the material isn’t strong enough to support the film up by itself. It’s bizarre that a director responsible for some of the most memorable cinematic images in history could make such a visually unadventurous film.
The script is also heavy with dramatic irony and references that require a decent rounding in the early history of psychoanalysis to make much sense – on the other hand, the film isn’t enlightening or incisive enough to say anything new to someone already familiar with the basic concepts, which makes you wonder exactly who this film is aimed at.
Fassbender, Cassell, and Mortensen all put in decent performances, and when they’re onscreen the film putters along reasonably enough, and if it was just scenes with them the film would be passable if rarely rising above the level of a good TV movie.
I should probably preface this by saying that I am by no means a Keira Knightley hater – there’s plenty of stuff I’ve really liked her in, like ATONEMENT and NEVER LET ME GO – but her performance in A DANGEROUS METHOD is historically bad. She’s not the only one to blame – clearly Cronenberg told her to ‘go for it’ – but it’s one of the most nails-on-chalkboard irritating things I’ve seen in a cinema for a long time. Her portrayal of madness hinges on a non-stop barrage of flailing limbs, guttural noises, a stammer more over-the-top than Michael Palin in A FISH CALLED WANDA, and relentless gurning, wrapped around a ludicrous Borat-by-way-of-Robbie Coltrane in Goldeneye accent. It’s less a convincing portrayal of madness than it is a cartoonish imitation of someone found wandering around Glastonbury at 6AM on a Sunday morning. It’s not a screen performance – it’s a theatre one. Everything should have been dialled down by about thirty notches, and ultimately Cronenberg has to take as much responsibity for this as Knightley. It’s nothing personal against her, and I’m positive the next film I see her in she’ll be great, but fuck me if she isn’t unwatchable for large swathes of this.
It’s a shame A DANGEROUS METHOD turned out the way it did, because there is little in the film to ultimately recommend it. One day a great film will be made about this subject – but this sadly isn’t it.