A Dangerous Method - Keira Knightley
Mental patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) in a rare non-hysterical moment © 2011 Sony Pictures Entertainment

Keira Knightley gives such a monumentally bad performance as a mental patient turned psychoanalyst in this otherwise handsome production that she should be a shoo-in for every Razzie-type award on the planet. The only thing stranger than her outrageous overacting is the fact that other cast members don’t appear to realize her character is still a cartoonish weirdo even after she is supposed to be cured of her craziness.

If it were possible to ignore Knightley’s embarrassing histrionics and the movie’s unintentionally comic sexual asides, A Dangerous Method could have been an intriguing intellectual exercise. The screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Chéri, Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons) examines the early 20th century relationship between imposing father-figure Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his eventually disillusioned devotee Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).

Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), one of Jung’s patients, drives a wedge between the two pioneering psychoanalysts by becoming Jung’s lover and inspiring him to think for himself.

A Dangerous Method - Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen
Pioneering psychoanalysts Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) have a meeting of the minds © 2011 Sony Pictures Entertainment

Director David Cronenberg, best known for memorable but less refined fare (A History of Violence, Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly), is an odd choice for this semi-Masterpiece Theater material. While he manages admirable restraint during scenes involving only the self-important Freud, the conflicted Jung and Jung’s porcelain-proper wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), the full-freakout flag flies whenever shrieking Spielrein careens onscreen.

Knightley puts herself through such jaw-jutting, bug-eyed, twisted fits as the masochistic and masturbating madwoman that Jung’s relaxed reasonableness around her character seems bizarre. The Spielrein part seems written to be played with far less scenery-devouring nuttiness, because it’s impossible to believe Jung would ask such a raving, twitchy maniac to act as his assistant. Little Britain fans can’t help being reminded of comedy sketches featuring the completely bonkers asylum inmate Anne (“EH EH EHHHH!”) and the utterly unconcerned therapist who ignores her flagrantly obvious lunacy.

Even when Spielrein overcomes the worst of her symptoms, thanks to Jung’s first practical use of Freud’s “talking cure,” she still comes across as a feral, underfed shrew with a bad Russian accent. The euphemism “getting some strange” is an apt description of Jung’s eventual affair with the humiliation-craving harpy, who enjoys watching herself in a mirror while she’s being whipped.

Curiously, considering the inclusion of those kinky cutaways and the extensive dialogs between Freud and Jung, the film never raises the issue of the female orgasm — a topic about which Freud had some odd opinions. Jung may not have been the type to whip and tell, but it’s odd that the movie’s sex scenes don’t result in any field-research-type discussions between Jung and his mentor.

Fassbender and Mortensen are so enjoyable in their roles that it’s hard not to wish they were playing them in a Knightley-free zone. The interesting relationship between Jung and Freud deteriorates into resentments while maintaining a bygone level of decorum. The closest the movie comes to humor is Freud’s mild irritation during scenes in which he is reminded that Jung had the literal good fortune to marry into money.

Vincent Cassel is good in a small role as psychiatrist Otto Gross, a shameless sexual libertine who helps convince Jung to ignore doctor-patient ethics and yield to Spielrein’s temptations.

Text postscripts reveal each character’s eventual fate. Spielrein’s impressive professional destiny is the most difficult to believe. By the end of the movie, the character we have seen onscreen still seems like the kind of wild-eyed, jittery loon who is more likely to stab a psychiatrist in the face than compare case histories with him. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

[Rating: 2.5 stars]


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.