Introduction

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method
  • Country of production: UK / Germany / Canada / Switzerland
  • Year: 2011
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: David Cronenberg
  • Running time: 93 minutes
  • Official website: www.dangerousmethodmovie.co.uk
 

A Dangerous Method is about the turbulent relationships between pioneering psychiatrists Carl Jung (MICHAEL FASSBENDER), Sigmund Freud (VIGGO MORTENSEN) and a troubled young woman, Sabina Spielrein (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY), who comes between them. A fact-based costume drama, it marks a departure from the horror films for which director DAVID CRONENBERG is renowned. It is ‘elegant and absorbing… beautifully watchable and driven by a series of thoughtful and stylish performances’ (Mark Adams, Screen International). The film was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the actors have been nominated for various critics’ awards, including Mortensen for a Golden Globe.  

In 1904 Spielrein, a Russian Jewish woman diagnosed as suffering from hysteria, was sent to a mental hospital outside Zurich. Subjecting her to the "talking cure" (the early term for psychoanalysis) being championed by Viennese neurologist Freud, Jung establishes that she was abused by her father from the age of four. She tells him that she is "vile and filthy and corrupt", yet her keen intelligence leads him to take her on as an assistant.

Psychoanalysis was initially thought dangerous not only because it appeared unscientific but because patients were liable to transfer on to the psychiatrist the infant’s love for a parent. Another analyst, Otto Gross (VINCENT CASSEL), sent to Jung for treatment argues against suppressing one’s instincts and the film-makers suggest that he influenced the married Jung to embark on a sado-masochistic affair with Spielrein.

This compromises Jung’s bond with Freud, as do their battles of ideas - Jung’s misgivings about Freud’s view that sex underlies all neuroses and Freud’s fear that Jung’s more mystical approach will discredit psychoanalysis. Freud also appears to distance himself from Jung because Jung is not Jewish.

The film has been praised for its lucid and ‘fascinating’ dialogue (Jason Solomons, The Observer). It was written by Christopher Hampton, whose Dangerous Liaisons (1988) earned him an Oscar and whose screenplay for Atonement (2007) was also Oscar-nominated. He adapted the script from his own play, The Talking Cure, which, in turn, was based on John Kerr’s 1993 non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method.

 

Re-view

A Dangerous Method

MEETING OF MINDS

A Dangerous Method is full of ideas about sexuality – some quite provocative, even a century after their first articulation – but it also recognises and communicates the erotic power of ideas... The mind is both slave and master of the body’s appetites… [It] has the quiet, uncanny mood of a horror movie, albeit one whose monsters are invisible, living inside the souls they menace.’

(AO SCOTT, THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Head shrinkers

On the face of it, a handsomely framed romantic drama set in Switzerland and Austria in the early years of the 20th century couldn't be further removed from director David Cronenberg's customary horror. Yet scratch the surface and the film-maker can be seen exploring his favourite themes of hysteria and invasion of the mind and body. ‘For all its formal restraint, the film is just as subversive and as disquieting as predecessors such as Crash and The Naked Lunch’ (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent). While other Cronenberg films such as The Fly and Videodrome involved physical mutations, ‘here, the transformation occurs within: it’s psychological, invisible, but no less startling’ (Christy Lemire, Associated Press).

Time Out's Dave Calhoun pointed out that it’s not really so odd that a man whose films have explored the depths of the human mind – his Spider (2002) was an imaginative account of a man cracking up – should interest himself in the birth of modern thinking on how that mind works. Christy Lemire of Associated Press agreed: 'This is a David Cronenberg film – although the pristine, cultured trapping may suggest otherwise – and this time Knightley is the monster.'

The film ‘opens like an electrified gothic novel with freaked-out Spielrein hurtling by coach through the placid Swiss countryside’ (J Hoberman, the Village Voice). She seems ‘like a vampire or witch being dragged to the stake’ (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent).

Media attention has spotlighted Knightley’s bravura, courageously exposed take on this demanding role. She is a writhing, stammering, nervous wreck. Later, ‘as her character calms, so Knightley delivers an impressively nuanced performance that highlights Sabina’s intelligence and charisma’ (Mark Adams, Screen International).

If Sabina thrills in being disciplined, Fassbender’s Jung is the one who brings the discipline to bear. As the prim, bespectacled conservative, Fassbender ‘skilfully conveys inner doubts, his growing mysticism, his lust and his love for Sabina, without ever showing any overt emotion at all’ (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent). Jung is confounded by Spielrein's passion and Freud's laconic wisdom. ‘He is serious, attentive and curiously passive, becoming aware of his feelings only when other people point them out to him’ (AO Scott, The New York Times).

Method acting

Mortensen (as Freud) ‘dials down his smouldering masculinity here for a performance that’s dryly humorous, full of snarky vanity and droll little digs’ (Christy Lemire, Associated Press), as his father figure character encourages Jung while gently mocking him. ‘Mortensen’s Freud, a sardonic, ineffably sinister presence who rarely raises his voice above a silky-smooth purr, calmly steals the picture,’ said Justin Chang in Variety.

Mortensen approached the role of Freud by undertaking the meticulous research for which he is renowned, even tracking down the type of cigar Freud smoked. In fact the production’s veracity has been widely praised. The ‘cinematography, costumes and production design are all quite sublime’, said Mark Adams of Screen International.

Taking its cues

The script is ‘exceptionally coherent’ (Justin Chang, Variety). ‘The film’s two distinct stories, Jung’s friendship with Freud and his painful romance with Spielrein, are fully complementary and each cleverly sheds light on the other’ (Dave Calhoun, Time Out).

The script is also ‘skilled at the way it weaves theory with the inner lives of its characters.’ (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). We come to understand something of psychoanalysis from seeing how it applies to Sabina. Appropriately for a film about a talking cure, the dialogue is ‘smart, satisfying and sometimes even thrilling’ (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times).

 
Pro-files

A Dangerous Method

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY

SABRINA SPIELREIN

Keira Knightley is one of Britain’s biggest movie stars, even though she is still only in her mid-20s. Born in London to an actor father and playwright mother in 1985, Knightley became a successful child actress, with early roles in TV drama. She was cast in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999, as the maid to the Queen played by Natalie Portman. With her porcelain good looks and willingness to combine roles in Hollywood films with less mainstream projects, Knightley has enjoyed a career profile similar to Portman’s.

Knightley’s winning performance as a football-mad schoolgirl in 2002 comedy Bend It Like Beckham brought her to the attention of the UK public, but it was her role as the intrepid Elizabeth Swann in Disney blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) that propelled her to international superstardom. A part in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually in the same year (alongside such luminaries as Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman) sealed her status as a bona fide British talent.

Knightley gave one of her finest performances to date playing the indomitable heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2005), for which she was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe. She reunited with that film’s director, Joe Wright, for 2007 wartime drama Atonement and was rewarded with Bafta and Golden Globe nominations. While also involved in the subsequent two Pirates of the Caribbean films, Knightley has tended to focus on more serious, smaller-scale projects, often playing real-life period figures, such as the Duchess of Devonshire in The Duchess, as Dylan Thomas’s lover in The Edge of Love (which was written by her mother) in 2008 and now Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method.

She also recently appeared in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), alongside Carey Mulligan, and Last Night (2010), with Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes. She will next appear in another Joe Wright film, as the lead in Anna Karenina.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER

CARL GUSTAV JUNG

If there had been any doubts about Michael Fassbender's range, he firmly silenced them in 2011. In the same year that he performed the role of pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung in this production, he was the brooding Edward Rochester in an adaptation of Jane Eyre, a comic book action figure in the spectacular summer blockbuster X-Men: First Class and a tortured sex-addict in Steve McQueen’s contemporary arthouse drama Shame.

It was with McQueen that Fassbender had initially shot to prominence. In his Hunger (2008), Fassbender played IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, who died after being on hunger strike in protest against the British authorities for months, a performance that saw Fassbender himself undergo severe weight loss. The following year he took a major role in Quentin Tarantino long-awaited WWII drama Inglourious Basterds. A fluent German-speaker (born to German and Irish parents), Fassbender actually played a British officer. In Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank that same year, he gave a characteristically committed performance as the lover of a single mother who attracts the interest of her teenaged daughter.

Expect his profile to be boosted even further next year when he appears in Prometheus, Ridley Scott's return to the Alien franchise.

VIGGO MORTENSEN

SIGMUND FREUD

Having made his film debut as an Amish farmer in thriller Witness (1985) Mortensen worked steadily, in films such as Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995), Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Ridley Scott’s Demi Moore action vehicle GI Jane (1997).

The role that made him a star was elf Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, between 2001 and 2003. This adaptation was a massive breakthrough for Mortensen, who brought his rugged good looks, physical intensity and a stately reserve to his role of the heroic elf. He also starred in feel-good family movie Hidalgo in 2004 (in which he played a mustang-riding cowboy), but since then he's generally been drawn to darker projects that have tested his dramatic range.

A Dangerous Method is Mortensen's third collaboration with director David Cronenberg. His performance as a Russian gangster in London-set thriller Eastern Promises in 2007 earned him Oscar and Bafta nominations. Two years earlier, his first lead role for Cronenberg had been as the family man with a mysterious past in A History of Violence.

More recently he was uncharacteristically restrained as a German literature professor pitted against the Nazi authorities in 2008 drama Good. He then gave a fearless, emotionally raw performance as the starving father struggling to protect his son from the dangers of a post-apocalyptic world in John Hillcoat's terrifying adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2009). Continuing the theme, Mortensen will soon be seen in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Born to a Danish father and American mother, Mortensen grew up in South America and New York and speaks four languages fluently. Aside from acting, he is also a published poet and photographer, and an accomplished painter and jazz musician.

VINCENT CASSEL

OTTO GROSS

Vincent Cassel is among France’s biggest stars and combines a career as a leading man there with occasional high-profile roles in US and British movies.

After a steady run of bit-parts in French television and cinema, Cassel got his breakthrough in 1995, playing the embittered young hero of La Haine, a vivid portrait of life in an impoverished suburb of Paris that had much the same impact in France as Trainspotting did in the UK. The success of that film and Cassel’s incendiary performance and dashing looks meant the young actor was much in demand: as well as big roles for French film-makers such as Luc Besson, for whom he played a nobleman in 1999 medieval drama Joan of Arc, he also branched out into international cinema. An early English-language part was in 1998 British period film Elizabeth (as another French nobleman, the Duc d’Anjou).

In 2002 he played the lead in French director Gaspar Noé’s brutal, shockingly violent Irreversible as the vengeful husband of a woman who is raped (she was played by Monica Bellucci, Cassel’s real-life wife). That movie was controversial, but it didn’t stop Cassel from being cast as the suave super-villain of glossy 2004 Hollywood comedy Ocean’s Twelve and in 2007 he co-starred alongside Brad Pitt and George Clooney in its sequel, Ocean’s Thirteen. That same year he played a Russian gangster alongside Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. But it was as another criminal, the eponymous real-life bank robber in gripping French drama Mesrine (2008), that he enjoyed his meatiest role to date. An ambitious, sprawling two-part film, it was a superb showcase for Cassel’s on-screen charisma.

Cassel recently starred in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), a supernatural thriller set in the world of ballet, alongside Natalie Portman, and in 17th century thriller The Monk (2011).

SARAH GADON

EMMA JUNG

Now 24, Toronto-born Gadon has been acting professionally since the age of 10, when she appeared in a Canadian TV drama based on French film Nikita. She has since established a busy career on the Canadian small screen, including crime series The Border and providing voice work for animated show Ruby Gloom. Next year she will appear alongside Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's acclaimed novel.

DAVID CRONENBERG

DIRECTOR

Nearing 70, David Cronenberg is one of the most acclaimed directors working today. Born in Toronto, where he shoots most of his films, Cronenberg made a couple of experimental shorts after studying literature at university. He made his name in 1979 with The Brood, a gruelling horror about a possessed pregnancy. Gory yet shot through with Cronenberg's personal preoccupations (the film partly expressed the director's then distress over an ongoing battle for custody of his daughter), the film set the tone for the series of remarkable horrors that Cronenberg would make during the 1980s. Notable among these were Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) and his 1983 Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, a rare mainstream success for the director.

Since his 1988 film Dead Ringers, a psychological thriller about twin brother gynaecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons), his films have become less visceral but no less unsettling: his 1996 adaptation of the JG Ballard book Crash was famously banned by Westminster Council and his bleak 2005 film A History of Violence, about a mild-mannered man’s bloody revenge, itself provoked strong reactions.

Having shot adaptations of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1991), a notorious work of beat literature, and Patrick McGrath’s bleak novel Spider (2002), Cronenberg has a reputation for turning ‘difficult’ literary sources into successful cinema.

Cronenberg is known, too, for getting strong performances from his cast, especially male leads such as Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes (as a destitute schizophrenic in Spider) and Viggo Mortensen. He has also acted for other directors, memorably taking a big part in British director Clive Barker’s 1990 horror flick Nightbreed.

 
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A Dangerous Method

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