David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method (Sony Classics, 11.23) is one of those brilliant, highly refined dramas with stirring elevated dialogue that are good for you, like spinach. It’s difficult to truly enjoy films of this sort as you watch them, but they’re hard to forget or dismiss after you’ve left the theatre. In the long or short run all good cinema gains upon reflection.
Keira Knightley in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method
But at the same time A Dangerous Method, which I caught late yesterday morning at the Telluride Film Festival, is a vaguely oppressive thing to sit through. Well-acted but extremely cool, aloof, studied and intellectually driven to a fare-thee-well. I’m not saying it’s going to underperform commercially, but I know what the current in the room was. People were respecting it for the most part, but not having all that great a time.
Written by Christopher Hampton and set mostly in Zurich between the early 1900s and the outbreak of World War I, Method is basically about how the mutually respectful and nurturing relationship between young psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and infallible father figure Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) came apart, largely over Jung’s ill-judged affair with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a brilliant but unstable young woman who eventually becomes a psychoanalyst herself.
Knightley’s highly agitated, face-twitching performance is fascinating but hard to roll with at times, particularly during the first 20 minutes to half-hour. Cronenberg told her to go for it in terms of facial tics and flaring nostrils and body spasms, etc. She does a jaw-jutting thing that hasn’t been seen since John Barrymore played Dr. Jekyll in the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At the same time Knightley brings a thrilling sexual intensity to the all-too-brief fucking and belt-whipping scenes with Fassbender.
All in all Knightley’s performance is quite a handful — it throws you and pulls you in at the same time. It’s a high-wire, risk-taking thing, and Method really needs to be seen for this alone.
The film is also essential viewing for a magnificent CGI shot of the lower Manhattan skyline as it appeared sometime around 1910 or thereabouts. The instant I saw I gasped and said to myself, “This is what great CG is all about…the kind that doesn’t look like CG at all but knocks your socks off for the realism.”