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In A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg channels Merchant & Ivory. The result is an absorbing look at the genesis of psychoanalysis back in the early 1900s.

Burgholzli Blues

Jung, Freud, and a cigar
Jung, Freud, and a cigar

In 1904, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go), an 18-year-old Russian Jewish girl, was admitted to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland. Under normal circumstances, it’d be the story of just another nut brought into the nut house.

Normal, though, is not the word for this case. Her doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class), was beginning to make a name for himself at the clinic. Concurrently, in Vienna, Austria, one Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) was also making great strides in understanding the workings of the human mind.

Sabina’s an interesting case, to be sure. She’s an incredibly sharp girl and her interests include “suicide and interplanetary travel.” Well, at least that’s what she chirps at Dr. Jung during an early interview. The problem is she’s got some baggage weighing down her young life. She says seeing people humiliated nauseates her, but the truth is spanking turns her on. While out for a stroll, a coat is dropped and Jung beats it clean with his cane. Sabina freaks out and she has to return to her room immediately.

Further inquiry reveals such incidents bring out randy desires in the girl and Sabina needed to hurry back to her room in order to achieve sexual self-gratification.

A Mad World

Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein
Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein

The best part of A Dangerous Method is that it’s a true story, or at least it’s Hollywood’s take on a true story, one documented in John Kerr’s book of almost the same title, A Most Dangerous Method.

What exactly is this dangerous method? Psychoanalysis. It was a daring new direction of study back in the early 1900s and this glimpse into its development focuses on the relationships between Jung, Freud, and Spielrein during 1904-1912. For Jung and Spielrein, it was also a test of the boundaries of doctor/patient relationships, one complicated further by Jung’s marriage and growing family.

Sure, Jung and Freud are the stars of their field, but it turns out Spielrein, who was able to transition from patient to student to practitioner, also contributed to the science. Unfortunately, her work was cut short; she was murdered by the Nazis back in her hometown of Rostov-on-Don. A life that started out on shaky ground ended in an all-encompassing family tragedy at the hands of Hitler and Stalin.

Shedding some light on this chapter of history is A Dangerous Method’s greatest value. But it also works well purely as a cinematic experience. It’s exciting to witness 68-year-old Cronenberg’s transition from creepy, far-out fare like Videodrome and Scanners to recent dramas like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. The latter two also star Mortensen, whose own career has also taken on interesting turns and roles following the gargantuan global success of the Rings trilogy.

Three of a Mind

As for Mortensen and his co-stars, they bring their historical characters to life with humanity rather than period-piece stuffiness. Perhaps some of the attributes portrayed by Fassbender and Mortensen should have been switched; Freud here is shown as a strong man, but historically he was more amiable and perhaps even a smidge, wee bit effeminate. Nonetheless, the two men are fun to watch as they flesh out their roles with compelling performances.

But the real revelation is Knightley. Always likable, particularly in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and The Duchess, her work here is a swift stride up the ranks of actresses with range and she should not be overlooked during awards season.

Portraying a woman with unusual anxieties and mental disorders isn’t easy. To do so with a nice, slight Russian accent makes it even more challenging. Knightley is certainly no stranger to corsets and period pieces, but this is a spectacular new ballgame for the woman who, at 17, made her mark in Bend it Like Beckham.

Bright Ideas

Running a spry, slim 99 minutes, A Dangerous Method hits the high points of its history with a marksman’s accuracy. That’s both good and bad. There are so many ideas tossed out there, so many niblets of juicy history, that it’s actually a shame the screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons) wasn’t stretched out to something more along the lines of those Merchant & Ivory flicks.

As it stands, A Dangerous Method will have to suffice as a Cliffs Notes edition of the larger, more detailed chapter. It’s a chapter in which Freud claims the basis for all neuroses is sexual and anal behaviors have a serious medical connotation that incorporates the modern day notions of extreme cleanliness and tight wallets.

Jung’s interest in telepathy and mysticism is touched upon, as is Freud’s more pragmatic approach; the latter was annoyed by the former’s speculative theories. Their divergent views are significant in light of Freud’s comment to Jung, “Whatever you do, give up on any idea of trying to cure them.”

With chatter of interpreting dreams and Jung’s own horrifying nightmares of blood running through the streets of Europe (ominous visions foreshadowing a time when the world would be at war), the movie ends right at the precipice of a world in turmoil. To continue with the story would be the makings of an epic.

Ah well. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a movie can only be a movie.