After his trifecta of psychologically violent films (see Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), David Cronenberg digs back to the root of loony bin movies and exhumes the granddaddies of psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century Europe, with the Viennese think-tank Sigmund Freud and the Swiss therapist Car Jung (with Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in impeccably fine form, respectively) duelling minds and ideas. The auteur’s move seems to deliberately amp up his standard provocation, head-butting sexual psychology with the ‘talking cure’ and having Fassbender whip Keira Knightley’s ass to the point of no return, but instead of a sexually-charged erotica this side of Shame (mind you, Freud will be fascinated by Brandon Sullivan’s postmodernist case), A Dangerous Method opts for a buttoned-up, slightly repressed Merchant Ivory-esque period drama, which is ironic given the film’s bodice-ripping subject matter.
It begins, tantalisingly, as a study of psycho-sexual dilemma with Knightley giving what seems to be a justifiably apt Cronenbergian body-horror performance, whose jaw takes a life of its own and closely stealing the entire film away. Some would gripe it’s theatrical, but Knightley embraces the role with full spirit, manifesting symptoms of hysteria in disturbingly physical fashion. Plus, she gets to show off with some Russian accent chops. But setting aside Knightley’s dropping jaws aside, we’re left with a film that treads ever so softly upon the legacy of Freud and Jung, whose great battle of minds, by the way, mostly happen through carefully written letters in long-hand (cue chin-brushing narrations). Mortensen and Fassbender give dignity and eloquence to their roles, but the narrative does not transcend the material provided by Christopher Hampton. We understand Cronenberg is keeping a lid on this, restraining what could be a loony-bin beast of a movie, but somehow the efforts of restraint only mars its potential, sadly resulting into a pedestrian costume drama with Knightley wearing yet another frock.
Respectable piece of workmanship. But for a film boiling with a pot of ideas, psychoanalysis and simmering sexual tension, this is surprisingly repressed stuff. Cronenberg’s restraint is admirable, but A Dangerous Method seems to deserve a more audacious approach.