Historical dramas tend to fit nicely into familiar, tried-and-true categories. Epics hope to capture the grand sweep of history as world-changing events unfold. Biopics focus on a single heroic figure struggling with conflicts unique to a particular time and place. Director David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method serves up something far less common: a historical drama of ideas.
Written by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure (which was inspired by John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method), the film depicts the origins of psychotherapy in early 20th-century Europe. The ideas were so revolutionary for their time, it takes only three main characters to tell the tale: Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and little-known Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who began as Jung's first psychotherapy patient but wound up his peer as an innovator in the field, especially in the area of child psychology.
The theatrical and literary sources for the A Dangerous Method rely heavily on a trove of letters written by the three principal characters to each other in real life, and it shows. This is a talky film, spent mostly in tidy Victorian drawing rooms as Freud and Jung work out details of language and methodology for the new field of study. They bring mental illness out of the shadows and into the realm of recognized human behavior.
This is not everyone's idea of a good time at the movies. But there's something deeper and more significant happening here. To quote screenwriter Hampton, "These three people invented the 20th century." Before Freud and Jung, few people publicly discussed sexuality or any other key aspect of the human psyche. It's hard not to be entranced by the dawn of the modern age, even if it arrives buttoned-down and ready for a nice cup of tea.
Fortunately, Knightley's Sabina is anything but genteel. She's introduced as a hysteric in the film's first scene, where Knightley pushes her portrayal to a daring extreme. As the story evolves, Sabina breathes life into the film and turns theory into flesh and blood — and she moves the proceedings from office to boudoir, where she and Jung explore both doctor-patient boundaries and sadomasochism. (Early on, A Dangerous Method was known to some in Hollywood as "the spanking movie.") Sabina becomes a catalyst for the growing differences between Freud and Jung, who are played with tremendous skill and restraint by Mortensen and Fassbender. Vincent Cassel takes a woefully brief turn as another early psychotherapist, the cocaine-snorting, patient-seducing proto-hippie Otto Gross. He stays around just long enough to give Jung the license he needs to follow his own unkempt urges.
None of this sounds much like the work of David Cronenberg, who's known for lurid "body horror" concoctions like The Fly and Dead Ringers. But the director, who turns 69 in March, may be mellowing a bit with age. In fact, A Dangerous Method gradually turns into a love story. That's just the sort of creative risk on which reputations and careers are finally made. —KEN KORMAN
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley