It would be easy to dismiss A Dangerous Method, the latest from director David Cronenberg, as an overly dry, albeit fleet-footed adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play "The Talking Cure." As an examination of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), there's little that's revelatory or terribly insightful, despite the interesting subject matter. This is Cronenberg at his most calm, free of sensationalism or body trauma. And the film would almost be too calm if it weren't for one element: Keira Knightley's performance.
Tellingly, the film opens not with Jung or Freud (who is very much a supporting character), but with Knightley's Sabina Spielrein, a Russian woman sent for treatment due to "hysteria." And right from the start, Knightley grabs your attention, screaming at the top of her lungs, collapsing into bizarre laughter, and contorting her face in ways I didn't think fully possible without the assistance of CG. It's such a striking performance (I mean that in a neutral sense) that how you feel about the film may ultimately hinge on whether you find the actress' work intensely riveting, or wacky and over the top. That is, unless you're like me, and find that she oscillates wildly between the two non-stop, in which case forming a definitive opinion on Cronenberg's latest becomes somewhat more puzzling.
Covering roughly a decade in time, what's noticeable from early on is that Hampton's play (which he adapted himself for the screen) hasn't made the full transition so that it feels entirely cinematic. Granted, this is a film that revolves around conversation after conversation, and there are plenty of exteriors that help flesh out the locations, but at times it's not enough. In one early scene, Jung sits behind Sabina, with no other decoration in the room. The shot shows only two sides of the square room coming together in a corner, and the angle creates the sensation that we're very much in a set, possibly even on a stage with very convincing lighting. It's odd, because so many of the interior scenes (thankfully) lack this quality, but every now and then the staginess creeps through, whether in the mise-en-scene or the occasional transition that arrives too abruptly. The quickness of the transitions is perhaps the bigger flaw, as it throws off any sense of proper pace, and I counted several times when the film felt like it was ready to conclude, only to see it keep going. Thankfully it's never boring, but it also feels like A Dangerous Method feels content to play out scene after scene and then simply end, rather than reach a proper sort of resolution (which is done through, sigh, title cards detailing various fates).
And while the screenplay has a surprising amount of light humor and some compelling exchanges, it also has moments that are completely dry. These are usually scenes where characters are talking in language so technical, and so devoid of character, that it starts to feel like a lesson. It renders whatever theoretical breakthroughs people have totally unremarkable, when they should be the source of the film's most intriguing exchanges.
It's too bad, because there's really a lot to like, or at least admire, in the film. The production values are quite handsome, and Peter Suschitszky's cinematography is sharp, clean, and bright. Howard Shore's musical contributions, which basically amount to a single theme, are also quite effective. As for the performances, there are moments for everyone to shine, but the script isn't nearly as rich in exploring the conflicts as it ought to be. It all feels too sanitized, to the point where the much talked about spanking scene stirs little emotion. Of Fassbender's many roles this year, this is easily his weakest, by virtue of the academic nature in which Hampton writes the character. Mortensen has fun as Freud, but again, he's treated from an odd distance, and the academic approach hurts his efforts. When it comes to Knightley, I'm at a crossroads. She's either the best or worst of the trio, depending on the scene. Overall, though, it's too uneven of a performance to really exalt, as there are too many moments that feel overwrought that clash with scenes where the actress shines. At the very least, however, it feels like Knightley is really taking a risk, which is more than can be said for just about every other aspect of the film. A little more danger really would have been quite helpful.