A Dangerous Method 12/03/08 3:16
The film opens in 1904 as Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, is brought to a Swiss mental hospital in a carriage, screaming and howling uncontrollably. She suffers from what in those days was called hysteria, and today would be categorized as a dissociative disorder. Carl Jung, the head of the clinic, played by Michael Fassbender, uses the psychoanalytic methods that he's learned from reading studies by Freud, and in a series of intense sessions with Spielrein, they uncover abuse from her father and her corresponding sexual masochism. She gradually gains a degree of autonomy, and the relative success of the treatment prompts Jung to go to Vienna and visit Freud for the first time, beginning a kind of master-disciple relationship that at first is very positive. But differences in their ideas, and a serious lapse in ethics on the part of Jung, threatens to destroy their partnership.
The English actress Keira Knightley attained stardom early on, and has displayed some talent in a few of her movies, but in this film she goes to another level and really acts as a character very different from her star persona. Her performance is startling, and sometimes disturbing. There are critics unfamiliar with mental illness that have questioned her work here, but it's actually a very strong portrayal of how these symptoms appear in a patient's behavior. Her pairing with the brilliantly self-assured Fassbender produces a striking contrast of calm and turbulence, intellect and passion, but just as Jung's later ideas emphasize internal opposites and shadows, so the contrast between this man and woman is only apparent.
Viggo Mortensen plays Freud, and although he's top billed, his sly and witty performance, in which I'm certain he smokes a cigar in every single shot in which he appears, is really a supporting one. Cronenberg's style, as if to counterbalance the story's subject, is classical and almost serene, impeccably shot, and accompanied by Howard Shore's darkly lush music. Although it all takes place before World War I, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this film in the theme of Aryan respectability versus Jewish challenge and disruption—Freud and Spielrein were both Jewish, and Jung wasn't, this having a political import which Mortensen's Freud spells out as a warning at one point. It's a film in which ideas battle it out like people, but Cronenberg never loses his sense of tragic empathy for his characters, his regard for the tortured brilliance of Spielrein, or the conflicted integrity of Jung.
A Dangerous Method, brilliant and challenging is the product itself of a superb artistic method.