A Dangerous Method has been largely – and wilfully – overshadowed by its hype. Most people heard about “that film where Keira Knightley gets spanked” long before they knew it was about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. To be honest, when I found out about the psychoanalysis, I was worried it might get in the way of the spanking.
The scene in question – which turns out to be fleeting – has been talked about so much it colours the rest of the movie, in the same way watching Titanic is coloured by the knowledge that the boat is going to end up at the bottom of the ocean. A Dangerous Method’s narrative – centering on the relationship between Freud and Jung during the early years of psychoanalysis – is like a sexual orchestra building towards its inevitable crescendo.
It’s a shame the film isn’t quite strong enough to carry the weight of expectation. It has the ingredients of a David Cronenberg classic; madness, sex, revulsion at the self. But it’s disappointingly flat.
Knightley is often – somewhat unfairly – criticised for pouting her way through roles; an accusation that certainly can’t be levelled at this performance. From the opening scene, in which, as Jung’s disturbed patient-come-protege Sabina Spielrein, she is dragged kicking and screaming into an asylum, Knightley sets out her stall. She contorts her chisled jaw and slender limbs in improbable angles, flinching at the slightest movement. This is her What’s Eating Gibert Grape moment. She doesn’t quite pull it off. Despite a valiant effort, she is never quite convincing as Spielrein the patient, although she is more comfortable as her character “recovers” (a very suspect word in the eyes of a psychoanalyst).
Viggo Mortensen is impressive as psychoanalytical patriarch Freud, playing him with a menacing reserve. Michael Fassbender’s Jung is a refreshing change of pace for the actor du jour – a likable, earnest chap troubled by his repressed sexual desires and some pretty wacky ideas about para-psychology. The dialogue between the two doesn’t exactly crackle but it’s a fascinating take on the decidedly Freudian relationship at the heart of psychoanalysis.
If you can put the spanking to the back of your mind, A Dangerous Method is a passable, slow-paced period drama. But as a David Cronenberg vision of the nature of psychology and desire, you can’t help but feel short-changed.
First published in City A.M.