REVIEW: A Dangerous Method

5 01 2012

If I were sitting in a test screening or reviewing the script of “A Dangerous Method,” I could sum up all my reactions in a lyric from an Elvis Presley song: a little less conversation, a little more action please.  There’s plenty of interesting psychoanalytic banter between the three main characters, but from the beginning it  is evident that screenwriter Christopher Hampton is much like the long-winded priest of your childhood who is perfectly content to listen to himself talk all day.  While it can be intellectually stimulating at times (although its appeal might be limited to those with prior knowledge in the field of psychology), director David Cronenberg makes little case for why this should be a movie and not a textbook or an educational play at the Museum of Natural History.

That’s not to say that the feud between the psychoanalytic master Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his thoughtful analytic practitioner Jung (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t have its moments of compelling drama, nor does it mean that the taut sexual tension in the doctor-patient relationship between Jung and the crazy/crazily intelligent Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) isn’t an interesting study of sexual desires and repressions.  But Cronenberg’s movie, largely due to Hampton’s script, is at war with itself, unable to decide what it is and how it wants to address its internal contradictions.  The balancing act is made especially difficult by the fact that the battle of the minds is a rather understated conflict while the battle of the sexes is garishly over the top due to Knightley’s performance.  Is it a movie of ideas or a movie about Jung’s self-examination through those ideas?

Rather than pick one of these stories to tell with great focus and resolve, Hampton decides to tell both and do neither sufficient justice.  The relationship drama with Sabina, which involves debating adultery and monogamy as Jung is both a husband and father, has some compelling moments.  Yet if you take away the reputation of Jung and remove Howard Shore’s serious score, it plays out like a standard romantic comedy of star-crossed lovers.  Man and woman constrained by society and the nature of their relationship, but their carnal attraction overcomes obstacles and forces them to confront their feelings about each other.  Sound familiar?

It’s easy not to think about that, though, because Keira Knightley overacts Sabina to the rafters.  It’s like her character escaped from an “SNL” sketch about a female version of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Especially in her early scenes in the movie where she is clinically ill, her character seems to be a more natural screen cohabitant with Kristin Wiig in “Bridesmaids” than acclaimed actors like Mortensen and Fassbender.  Her physicality is so bizarrely exaggerated that it’s hard to constrain the giggles, especially when Sabina seems to have a particular proclivity for contorting her face into a protruding underbite.

Meanwhile, in the battle of wits with the professional tussles between Freud and Jung, both actors seem much more focused on talking than acting.  We get the thematics of the script and a little bit of Psych 101, but it’s hardly a proper use of such talented actors.  It makes for an interesting paradox that in a movie about two men that got to the root of emotional repression, most of the emotions and conflict is heavily internalized and bubbling under the surface.  There’s conflict, sure, but it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere concrete other than to a rift that we sense coming from their first conversation.  Much like “A Dangerous Method” itself, these two great minds have no shortage of words.  However, while their work took the world uncharted and exciting territory, the work of Hampton and Cronenberg merely takes us in circles around their theories.  B- / 

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4 responses

5 01 2012
Matt Stewart

Surprised you didn’t like this one, I’ll keep an eye out for your criticisms. Good work!

7 01 2012
Marshall

Surprised based on the reviews from other critics or my reviews? Just wondering.

6 01 2012
CMrok93

Good review Marshall. The performances are good, even though Knightley may be over-acting quite a bit, and it looks great, but the film also just feels like a series of vignettes with no real feeling or drama to it. Basically what I’m trying to say was that I was bored and this story just never really got off the ground.

8 01 2012
aculturedlad

Loved your review.

Earlier in the year it looked like this could be a real frontrunner for the awards season, purely due to the nature of the plot. I’m still looking forward to seeing it. I have previously liked Christopher Hampton’s work but his screenplays can be quite laborious. Cronenberg’s work is pretty unknown to me so I can’t say anything about that aspect of it. Still going to see this when it comes out here in the UK.

I’ve only recently just found your blog and am really enjoying it so I’ve subbed 🙂

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