Reduced to its essence, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is little more than an historical romantic tragedy. Since the film's three principals were pioneers in the field of psychotherapy, it goes without saying there's a lot of dialogue about the ego, the mind, the connection between sex and death, and so forth - potentially enough to overload someone not in the profession. (I found myself straining to remember the relevant chapters from my Psych 101 text book.) Ultimately, however, A Dangerous Method is less about the formative years of psychotherapy and two of its progenitors than it is about a rule-breaking extramarital affair.
The movie covers the span of roughly a decade, beginning around 1904 and concluding just before the outbreak of World War I. The primary focus is the relationship that develops between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient, Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly). When Jung first encounters Sabina, she is a wreck - in the grip of a severe anxiety disorder and barely functional. As Jung employs an experimental "talking cure" on her, it is revealed that any form of physical punishment or humiliation triggers excessive sexual desire. Her sessions with Jung enable her to cope with her needs and overcome the guilt that accompanies them. After leaving his care, she elects to become a psychiatrist and, while in his capacity as her dissertation adviser, he initiates a sexual relationship with her. In the meantime, Jung has begun a friendship with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and quickly rises to the position of Freud's "#1 disciple." Jung's career and professional standing are threatened, however, by the proverbial "woman scorned." After breaking off his affair with Sabina, he learns she is unwilling to calmly "just be friends."
The romantic aspect of A Dangerous Method is the most emotionally resonant element of the movie, but it's also the most hackneyed. The production's claim to originality - the telling of the friendship between Jung and Freud - becomes a secondary concern. There are enough scenes between the two to provide a general view of how they influenced one another and what eventually caused the falling out, but those sequences are perfunctory and, like the character of Freud, lacking depth and insight. A Dangerous Method wants to tell the stories of Jung and Sabina and Jung and Freud (and how they criss-crossed). While it can be said to accomplish both, it only does the former well.
The original source material is John Kerr's carefully researched A Most Dangerous Method, which was developed by Christopher Hampton into the stage production, The Talking Cure. Hampton, no stranger to the art of screenplay writing, adapted his own play, as he did with Dangerous Liaisons. For Cronenberg, who is known for odd and sometimes envelope-pushing motion pictures, A Dangerous Method is about as straightforward and conventional as it gets. Although there are brief forays into S&M, those are background elements. Perhaps Cronenberg was fascinated by the way in which the movie discusses and explores the concept of sexual repression and its link to psychological dysfunction. Whatever the case, Cronenberg does nothing to "sign" this movie; one must see his name on the credits to recognize this as being his work.
Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender have previously displayed the Full Monty on screen (Mortensen in a prior collaboration with Cronenberg, Eastern Promises), but they retain their modesty in A Dangerous Method. Their performances are solid but unexceptional. Fassbender has a stronger presence in two of his other 2011 efforts, X-Men: First Class and (especially) Shame. Mortensen isn't given much of an opportunity to develop Freud as more than a pompous jerk with a stick up his ass. Kiera Knightley, however, shows plenty of flesh as she immerses herself in the performance. The actresses' best work comes early, during Sabina's unhinged scenes; Knightley's portrayal is feral and unsettling. It's not the nudity that makes this courageous acting; it's the lengths to which she goes to simulate Sabina's anxiety attacks. As good as she is, however, the actress has difficulty with Sabina's accent (Russian-accented German, but presented in English - no wonder it's confused).
A Dangerous Method provides viewers with an affecting melodrama that is more honestly "based on a true story" than many similar tales while simultaneously dispensing intriguing ideas about sex, science, and death. By accentuating the raw and emotional aspects of the narrative, Cronenberg avoids the obvious trap of pretentiousness, but he cannot hide the fact that he's just skimming the surface of more compelling material. Those who go to the movie expecting to see a detailed chronology of the beginnings of psychotherapy will be disappointed, but those in search of a Tolstoy-flavored romantic tragedy will find it here, albeit with a degree of sexual candor that would have given the great author a heart attack.