hys·te·ria 1: a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions 2: behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess
There is nothing about Keira Knightley‘s performance in David Cronenberg‘s “A Dangerous Method” that is quiet, demure or understated. But that’s by design and with very good reason. She plays Sabina Spielrein in the film, a young woman suffering terribly from hysteria, an illness that makes itself known in a manner that is as obvious as it is uncomfortable (see above). She comes into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and it isn’t long before their doctor/patient relationship becomes something more, and a concern to Jung’s friend and colleague Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As the woman who not only comes between the two legendary doctors, but undergoes a tremendous emotional journey of self-revelation, Knightley pulls off a performance that finds nuance even in its most extreme moments. It required the actress to do some deep research and take a leap of faith in a character that is hard to embrace at first, but whose growth is a reward to watch on screen.
“My main challenge in all of it was just trying to understand exactly why she behaved in the way that she did, and what would spark it off. I spent a lot of time reading and talking to analysts about her and that kind of behavior and the idea of a masochistic personality and what that sort of entails,” Knightley told us in an interview this week. “Although there are descriptions of what her hysterical fits were and what the tics were, they’re very vague, so even from them you can’t quite get a grasp of what it was. So it did take quite a lot of reading to figure out how to portray what was going on inside, on the outside.”
To help ensure she was accurately portraying Sabina, Knightley asked a lot of questions to the film’s screenwriter Christopher Hampton, whom she already had a rapport with thanks to his work on “Atonement,” and he gave her plenty of material to take home and study. And to capture the character honestly, the actress couldn’t make her easy to understand or sympathize with.
“It’s not like depression, it’s not melancholia, it’s not a kind of low energy thing, it’s a very high energy thing. And it’s not something that’s often seen on film,” Knightley explained about hysteria. “Depression on film is lovely, because you get lovely still close-ups, and [the camera] can go right in, and everyone in the audience can empathize with it. This is a very different thing, and it was something that repulsed people and should repulse people, because that’s what she did and that was her intention with a lot of the things she did in life. I thought it was really important from the beginning that it had that high energy, repellent aspect to it.”
It’s a high-wire performance, one that blends a simmering pot of sexuality, neuroses and emotional turmoil in a wrenching stew, and while she might have had her doubts at first, the confidence instilled by Cronenberg made it easy for Knightley to come on board. “[It’s] the sort of role anyone that wants to be an actor would kill for. I was just so up for the challenge. I love doing things that frighten me, and I looked at this and I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t got a clue how to do this, but I’m really willing to give it a shot,’ ” she said. “And when you’ve got someone like David Cronenberg who’s phoning you up going, ‘This is the role, I really want you to play this part’…it’s an amazing thing. I thought, ‘I don’t want to let you down’ so I might as well just go for it.”
And while Knightley speaks with an accent she says is “mid-Atlantic, with a Russian blush” in Joe Wright‘s upcoming “Anna Karenina,” she and the rest of the cast — Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson — will be using their native English accents for the film. The director had hinted he was going to ditch attempts at a Russian accent last spring, and while purists may be fixated on that point, Knightley teased that it is just a small part of a much bigger vision that will give an “Anna Karenina” unlike anything we’ve seen before.
“He’s got a very different concept than anything that’s been done before, I’m only going to say that because I’m pretty sure they’re going to start releasing things soon about the concept, so you’ll get to see it,” the actress said. “I’m not going to try and describe what it is, but it’s a much more theatrical version of the piece than has been done before, and I was really excited by that.”
But it’s not all corsets and period fare for the actress, as this spring Knightley joins Steve Carell in “Seeking a Friend For the End of World,” which both is and isn’t what it sounds like. “It’s about what happens when you know you’ve only got about twenty days until an asteroid hits Earth, and what happens to society in that time. It’s a very, very dark comedy. It’s also weirdly for its subject matter incredibly optimistic and sort of life-affirming. I thought it was one of the best scripts I’ve read, really,” she said of the film, written and directed by “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” scribe Lorene Scarfaria, making her feature debut. Knightley told us she was seeing a first cut this week, and that she was already hearing positive word.
But until then, if you haven’t seen “A Dangerous Method,” it’s in theaters right now. And if it’s not in your town yet, check the dates, because the movie will be aggressively expanding to more cities through the end of January.