Conflict comes in many shapes and forms, but sometimes the greatest come from within one’s self. Such is the struggle that occurs in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. An intense, dramatic look at what happens when one tries to defy the desires of the heart in order to placate the mind. A Dangerous Method centered on the trials and tribulations of the founders of modern psychiatric care, as the world around them moves into the ominous shadow of the first Great War. Despite being a little dry at times, A Dangerous Method paints a fascinating portrayal of the intersecting lives and careers of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
By the early 1900’s Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is already a well-respected and successful doctor in the field of mental health. He faces the first great challenge of his career when young Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) comes to his hospital seeking treatment of her dangerous psychosis. Originally perplexed by her unique situation, Jung begins to see a beauty and intelligence buried by years of physical and mental abuse. Jung treats her using the radical theories of his idol Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and sees resounding success, capturing the attention of the great doctor himself. Soon, what is originally just correspondence turns into a friendship and professional collaboration between the two men. However, Jung’s ongoing fascination with the healthy Sabina blossoms into a full-blown affair. Eventually Freuds’ disapproval of the breach of the patient/doctor relationship and Sabina’s own success as a psychiatrist becomes too much to bear, and the once fruitful relationships between all three of them become strained due to jealousy and misguided romances.
Defined characters and strong relationships are the merits that define A Dangerous Method. Each of the three central characters is extremely well written and holds a commanding presence throughout the entire story. Fassbender’s Carl Jung is a deeply multi-faceted character positively bursting with internal conflict. He’s brilliant but flawed, torn between his desire to succeed as a doctor and husband and his inability to stave off the temptation he feels with Sabina. When Freud becomes involved directly in the lives of both Jung and Spielrein, Viggo Mortensen gives off a calm, commanding presence. The interactions between the three characters, in every capacity, are stirring and convincing. Freud acts as if he’s known them all their lives, and they all seem to understand each other perfectly. Cronenberg has managed to take these monumental historical figures and put them onscreen as characters, both human and sympathetic. It’s very impressive, and seeing the true emotions of people audiences may only be familiar with in textbooks is incredibly invigorating.
Of course it’s the acting of all of the cast members that makes this story so engrossing. All three of the central actors give phenomenal performances. Michael Fassbender manages to express entirely all of the turmoil going on within the mind of Carl Jung. All of his emotions are present, from his desire to gain the appreciation of his idol Freud, to his passionate and violent eroticisms with Sabina, to his persistent guilt over being unfaithful to his wife. Truly, it’s one of the more complex and effective performances that audiences will have seen in quite sometime. Keira Knightly also showcases some of her best acting here as well. Her early scenes when her psychosis is at its most debilitating are both disturbing and piteous. It’s also extremely satisfying to see her overcome her debilitations, and grow in confidence as both a successful doctor and passionate human being. The intimate scenes she shares with Fassbender are stirring as well. She really gives off an air of sincere passion and convinces the audience that she is the only person in the world who truly understands Carl Jung.
Viggo Mortenson demonstrates his versatility here as well. Truly a consummate character actor, he deftly navigates through the complex lives that he, Jung, and Spielrien shared. He’s definitely the more quiet and reserved of the three central characters, but this is in no way a detriment. He’s the authority figure – one so convinced of his ironclad mentality that audiences really feel like they’re getting to know the father of modern psychiatry. It’s also worth mentioning the strong, albeit brief supporting performances of actors Sarah Gadon and Vincent Cassell. Gadon is wonderful as the stalwart Emma Jung, the ever-loyal wife. She’s a paragon of support, and one of the most tragic characters in the story. Gadon maintains an aura of confidence embracing full well Emma’s knowledge of her husband’s flaws and indecencies. Cassell portrays a seedy former protégé of Freud’s – a man convinced that only through sexual liberation could a person truly be free. His tawdry pursuits lead to both his own and Jung’s eventual downfalls. Cassell shines here as Otto Gross, making the most out of a very small amount of screen time. He’s creepy and self-assured, the closest thing to a villain that appears in the story.
A Dangerous Method is a very good film in almost every way. The acting is superb and the production design is totally evocative of the time. Audiences who enjoy historical dramas, as well as desire a chance to learn more about these titans of psychology will enjoy this film the most. The only caveat one could have when recommending this movie is how potentially different it may seem than Cronenberg’s previous offerings. Gone is the visceral intensity of Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. That being said, Cronenberg delivers once again proving that he’s one of the most talented director’s working today. Those seeking a deliberate, expertly crafted drama will definitely find plenty to love here.