Cronenberg’s all-talk and no-interest approach handicaps the subject of psychoanalysis in “A Dangerous Method”

The early days of psychoanalysis: not exactly the most entertaining of subjects for one to find compelling for a film. The key to draw an audience in to a difficult subject such as this lies in the hands and skills of the director; in this case, that would be David Cronenberg. Cronenberg succeeded nicely five years ago with the underrated crime drama Eastern Promises; his latest effort, A Dangerous Method, while driven by relatively willing performances, doesn’t exactly succeed in making the subject of psychoanalysis one of much interest to a more casual-to-psychology viewer.

Cronenberg opens A Dangerous Method with one seriously “off” woman: Sabina Spielrein, played here by Keira Knightley. In the opening scene, set in the early 1900s, Spielrein is taken to the mental clinic of one Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) for treatment –and she arrives there stark-raving mad. From the surface, Knightley appears to be nicely cast against type; doing her best to “de-glam” before the camera. Her effort here is admirable, but at times can seem over the top (of particular note: the off-putting thrusts she does to her jaw during her “mad” moments were memorable because they were flat-out distracting, not because we were being entranced by the character). All in all, Knightley seems to be trying much too hard to convince us that she can portray this type of character; her fearlessness painfully distracts more than convinces (Charlize Theron in Monster she’s not).

A “layman” may know who Jung is, especially if one took a psychology class in high school or college. Cronenberg’s film delves into his treatment of this mad woman. Jung treats her, but soon enough, the film digs into romantic drama territory when he is drawn into having an extramarital affair with Spielrein. Fassbender, who earned much acclaim last year for the controversial drama Shame, does fine as Jung, but the problem with the film is it is very dialogue-heavy (as it should be considering the subject matter) and yet the dialogue drifts, dawdles and meanders. For an hour-and-a-half long movie or so, it comes across as though it were a three-and-a-half hour one simply because Cronenberg doesn’t do enough to draw an interest to the world of the beginnings of psychoanalysis unless one can recall more about the famous doctor other than a faint memory of Psychology 101. It’s all talk and no reeling in of the audience, which is key in making a film such as this interesting to a viewer.

Of course, any film about early psychoanalysis wouldn’t be complete with Jung’s interactions with the Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Having worked with Mortensen in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises before this, Cronenberg knows how to collaborate with the Oscar-nominated actor and the director does succeed here in getting a willing performance out of him yet again; this time as the crafty, heavy-cigar-smoking, grand-master psychoanalyst Freud. The back-and-forth analytics between the two doctors do make for scenes to want to observe but there’s a major difference between beholding an audience’s attention and actually compelling them and reeling them in to the subject and the characters. One knows that what they’re saying is interesting surely, but it’s not exactly easy to take it all in and truly care to even “get” it.

There in lies the problem with the film: it’s hard to care about the subject matter with what Cronenberg is offering us. Fine performances can only go so far. By delving into the affair between Jung and Spielrein, and her eventual “woman scorned-ness” when the married Jung puts a stop to their relationship (or does he?), the film missteps even more by zeroing in on the melodramatics of the affair, Spielrein’s feelings about it all, and even her eventual plans to become a psychiatrist as well (!).

All talk and no action is all fine and good in a film, but it needs to be presented in such a way so as to draw an audience in, no matter what the subject matter may be. Although cast with fine actors, particularly Mortensen, Cronenberg fails to do his job and present an interesting enough movie to draw a non-psychoanalytical person in. It’s not as impossible a feat as it may seem, but Cronenberg did no favors by having Knightley go a bit too far with her character, playing too heavily on romantic melodrama and letting Freud and Jung enter into their world of psychoanalytic spiel with no regard for actual connection to an audience. An audience may be “cued” to know Jung and Freud are important in the world of psychology, but mere cues are far from enough to make them interesting in the world of film.

2 ½ out of 5 stars

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