David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”
by Megan Ratner
At the center of the emotional and intellectual geometry of A Dangerous Method are Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman so afflicted when she first consults Jung that she can only speak with effort. But she responds to Jung’s prototype of psychoanalysis, and, emboldened by his success, Jung contacts Freud (Viggo Mortensen), his mentor and (as the younger man sometimes puts it) father figure. Meanwhile Spielrein graduates from Jung’s patient to his assistant, and they embark on an affair that threatens both to cause a scandal and to discredit the psychoanalytic movement.
The actors bring an understated subtlety to the material: Mortensen is surprisingly laconic and light in the role of Freud, a far cry from the aggressive protagonists he played in previous outings with Cronenberg, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Unhurried and assured, his portrayal of Freud reveals a man convinced of his own greatness but fretfully protective of the future of his intellectual creation. This undercurrent serves him particularly well in his single scene with Spielrein, in which their shared devotion to the movement eclipses even their shared affection for Jung.
In the role of Spielrein, Knightley is initially startling. Though her writhing and grimaces are credible, it’s her consistently spooked expression, electrified and unpredictable, that makes her performance more than bravado. Even sitting relatively still during her initial session with Jung, Spielrein seems just this side of chaos. Cronenberg explained to me that Christopher Hampton studied Jung’s own notes about Spielrein during a research trip to Geneva. Additionally, Cronenberg viewed early actuality films of women with similar symptoms. “They’re very difficult to watch,” he said, “because it’s sort of a willed deforming.” He worked with the actress to go as far as possible toward depicting such self-disfigurements without getting to the point that it would become too uncomfortable for the audience. By channeling Spielrein’s mania into keen focus, as in the scene where she and Jung measure word-association reaction times (on his wife), Knightley effects a delicate transformation from madwoman to rising analyst. From the outset, she looks for no sympathy, playing Spielrein as an experimenter, unafraid of risk to her body or mind.
To Read the Rest of the Review