TIFF 2011 Review: ‘A Dangerous Method’ Isn’t Nearly Dangerous Enough

There are many expectations fans of director David Cronenberg have embraced when he makes a new movie and his ability to surprise is definitely one of them. Not surprises in terms of jump scares but more in the vein of not knowing what you’re going to get. One thing is certain, his work is never boring and is willing to go to dark places whether it be psychological (Dead Ringers), sexual (Crash), or spiritual (A History of Violence). Having said that, it’s my sad duty to report that the only surprise in his latest work, A Dangerous Method, is his ability to take an intriguing subject (sexual analysis) and make such a tame, limp movie.

On paper, the thought of Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in a duel of wits and sexual psychosis sounds like a film lover’s dream. The actors are more than capable of going to extreme places in search of an authentic performance and are only matched in their dedication by their fearless director. So why is it that a movie about the raw and animalistic ways we perceive sex be so neutered and detached from itself?

Exhibit A points to screenwriter Christopher Hampton who is working from his own play The Talking Cure and the novel A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. It’s tricky enough adapting one piece of material to the screen, but juggling two works at the same time causes the obvious problem of over-stuffing your story with conflicting ideas and that’s a serious roadblock Cronenberg is forced to deal with. The story should be centered solely on Freud and Jung, impressive minds and colleagues taking their ideas and sexual experiments to the next level. Instead, Jung is the unofficial lead of the story and is saddled for most of the film with a sexually repressed Russian patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).

The idea of balancing Freud and Jung’s mental chess match with the story of a sexually challenged mental patient is an interesting one that could bear fruit with the right actress, but any thought of a decent payoff to that story is killed within the first minute of the movie by Knightley’s overacting and wretched attempt at a Russian accent. The peaks and valleys of A Dangerous Method are tolerable, but Knightley’s performance is a complete disaster that even a pairing with skilled thespian Fassbender can’t save.

Fassbender’s Carl Jung is supposed to develop an attachment for his patient Sabina, but the emotion is never there. Even scenes of them together acting on their sexual urges are flat and uninteresting. The only true vital signs come at just under the halfway mark when Vincent Cassel (another Cronenberg alum) deviously threatens to stir the pot with sexual psychology. The problem is that promise to shake things up is all too brief and never fully executed.

To say A Dangerous Method is a David Cronenberg misfire is an understatement but not the end of the world. I applaud him for trying something new even if the end result is dead on arrival.

The Upside: Vincent Cassel’s mischievous cameo

The Downside: The entirely of Keira Knightley’s performance

On the Side: If you want a better David Cronenberg/Viggo Mortensen pairing, check out A History of Violence and Eastern Promises

Grade: C-

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