Review: A Dangerous Method

***originally written 24 February 2012***

David Cronenberg is one of my favourite directors still working today, so of course I had A Dangerous Method on my radar. His latest film breaks a silence that has lasted for almost five years, the longest sabbatical in a career that has, for the most part, seen the director working at an almost intimidating pace. In the 80s he was churning out almost a film a year.

He has often been sighted as a horror director, particularly because of the ‘body-horror’ subgenre he spearheaded with the likes of Shivers and Rabid, yet the label that more accurately fits, I feel, is ‘literary director’. After all, since 1983’s Videodrome, all but two of his films have been based on some form of literary source material. And in the case of both Naked Lunch and Crash, he has successfully brought ‘unfilmable’ texts to the screen. In fact, any horror aspects in his work have gradually shifted from physical to psychological. The brilliant, underrated Dead Ringers for example, along with the aforementioned Crash, are so powerful thanks to his perceptive knack of drawing the viewer in as voyeur to peculiar self-destructive behaviour. Cronenberg often asks us why we do the things that we do.

So it should really be no surprise that his latest film (from a screenplay based on a stage play that’s based on a book) sees him incarnating Freud and Yung, the two great figureheads of psychoanalysis. The film, set over the course of thirteen years or so, charts the relationship between the two; how Yung started off as the indebted disciple, and how a rift grew between them when Freud proved inflexible to Yung’s ideas. The third key player here is Sabina Spielrein, a disturbed patient of Yung’s who, with the aid of the ‘talking method’, was able to overcome mental illness and even become a psychoanalyst herself.

Anyone with the slightest inkling of the above should not be surprised or complacent then that A Dangerous Method is a very ‘talky’ picture. Based on a stage play about conflicting theories, Cronenberg’s latest is his gabbiest yet. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that featured the word ‘apoplectic’. To be honest, I had reservations about this. As much as I love a lot of Cronenberg’s films, the ones that don’t work are really quite terrible. Dreary and cumbersome. I went into the cinema fearing another Spider (possibly the most arduous film of the last decade). Not to mention that the film has not received unanimously glowing press by any means.

So I was happy to be quite quickly charmed and won over by A Dangerous Method. Yes, its light on actual action or drama, but Cronenberg, savvy to the nature of this picture, compensates by presenting what does unfold with striking visual dexterity. As usual he is working here with long-time director of photography Peter Suschitsky. The two have a distinct visual style down pat at this point, but where previously the pair would play effectively with shadow and cool, unnatural lighting, here we have a Cronenberg film bathed in light and  natural warmth. His actors, as usual, fit oddly into the compositions he makes, frequently slightly closer to the viewer than the norm. It’s a subtle but effective technique, honed over thirty years.

And the actors here are all on fine form. Michael Fassbender’s Yung is buttoned down, moralistic, sympathetic. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is humorous, almost Gandalf-like, frustratingly immovable. But it is Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein who is likely to cause the most contention. Her performance is jarringly physical, all sudden twitches and jutting-out jaw. A woman barely containing herself. It comes this close to falling off into the ridiculous, but somehow she maintains it. The sheer conviction involved makes it work.

Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton clearly side with Yung here. Fassbender is given the lion’s share of material, with Mortensen reduced to a supporting role. And it is Yung’s professional and personal problems that form the backbone of the film. Freud reduced to little more than a caricature. Whilst, as the story unfolds, Knightly is given more screen time than I had initially anticipated. Many may actually wish, given the potentially juicy subject material, that Yung and Freud were put together more. Instead their interactions are frequently reduced to a series of postal exchanges.

The film also peters out a little in the closing fifteen minutes, skipping years and ultimately ending on a sedate note. The end title cards detailing in brief terms the fates of these three individuals appear matter-of-factly, almost arbitrarily. There is a sense that, as beautiful as everything looks, and as impressive as the actors are, A Dangerous Method is something of a missed opportunity for some real verbal fireworks. It’s all a little hemmed in.

Credit where credit’s due though, the film skips along quite spryly. I didn’t once find myself pondering how far we had to go to reach the finish line. It is interesting and thought-provoking. Provocative, but in a gentler way than we are accustomed to with Cronenberg. Whether this new restraint becomes him remains to be seen. A Dangerous Method may have been a pleasant surprise to me, but my reservations had set the bar low. It will, I feel, ultimately play as a lesser work in Cronenberg’s defiantly curious canon. I still long for one last slice of deliciously perverse body-horror.

Score:  3.5

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