Can a play about personal conflicts in the nascent world of psychiatry at the turn of the 20th century be translated into an effective film? In the hands of playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton, director David Cronenberg, and three exceptional actors, the answer is yes. It takes some getting used to, as we don’t often see films that are so dependent on dialogue to express relationships. But if you avoid it because you don’t like “talky” dramas you will miss some of the finest performances of the year.
Michael Fassbender, whose reputation is soaring on the basis of his widely varied work this year alone, is a riveting presence as Carl Jung, the meticulous, impeccably-groomed doctor who adopts Sigmund Freud’s daring technique of talking out problems to deal with his latest patient, a Russian Jewess (Keira Knightley) suffering from extreme anxiety.
In time, he gets to meet his hero, played with perfectly-judged sangfroid by Viggo Mortensen. Freud welcomes Jung as a friend and protégé, but as the story progresses their relationship becomes strained because of the older man’s massive ego. He is unwilling to entertain any serious ideas other than his own.
A deeply troubled analyst, played by Vincent Cassel, is sent to Jung for treatment by Freud, and turns out to be a dangerous provocateur who stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble.
A Dangerous Methodis exquisitely mounted, but it is also, for all the fire simmering underneath the surface, a placid film—except in Knightley’s opening scenes, where she is on the verge of combustion. It may be difficult to fully embrace on an emotional level, but it offers a level of intellectual stimulus we rarely get in English-language cinema.