Now we have the first film of the festival season that seems to be dividing critics between raves and pans rather than being greeted with a unanimous “meh.” That film is David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which seems to be dividing critics between unimpressed scoffs and all-out raves. The film is from director David Cronenberg and stars his recent muse Viggo Mortensen as the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Mortensen plays opposite Michael Fassbender who plays Freud’s friend and mentee Carl Jung. Based on the play “The Talking Cure” from Christopher Hampton the film follows the disintegrating relationship between Freud and Jung through Jung’s relationship with his patient Sabina Spielrein played by Keira Knightley.
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gets the first word in on the film and he also had one of the most positive reactions. He calls it “precise, lucid, and thrillingly disciplined” and goes on to praise every technical element of the film, ending with a very kind comparison:
Despite having to cover stages in the trio’s relationships spread over many years, Hampton’s screenplay utterly coheres and never feels episodic. The dialogue is constantly confronting, articulate and stimulating, the intellectual exchanges piercing at times. Cronenberg’s direction is at one with the writer’s diamond-hard rigor; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky provides visuals of a pristine purity augmented by the immaculate fin de l’epoch settings, while the editing has a bracing sharpness than can only be compared to Kubrick’s.
Andrea Pasquettin of WhatCulture! had a less enthusiastic response to the film. Despite giving it 3 out of 5 stars she says Cronenberg’s misdirection was one of the major faults:
Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have a precise idea of what he wants the message of this film to be, his direction is plain, it misses his touch. A friend of mine after watching the film said that he would have preferred to have read the film, more than watched it. That’s a valid point, the film in fact looks more like a novel that’s been put on film line by line, without any consideration for the media that was being used and perhaps the story (based on a 2002 play by Christopher Hampton) should never have been considered for the big screen.
Xan Brooks of The Guardian has the film’s most negative review giving it only 2 out of 5 stars. He spends much time addressing the spanking scene, which he believes fails to accomplish its intended mission:
But spanking, as any good psychiatrist should know, has consequences. In this particular case, it winds up exciting Sabina to a worrying degree, making Jung more miserable than he was before and comprehensively torpedoing the friendship with Freud, who initially defends his protege and then feels a fool for doing so. What the spanking can’t do, unfortunately, is knock some life into this heartfelt, well-acted but curiously underwhelming slab of Masterpiece Theatre. A Dangerous Method feels heavy and lugubrious. It is a tale that comes marinated in port and choked on pipe-smoke. You long for it to hop down from the couch, throw open the windows and run about in the garden.
Oliver Lyttelton of The Playlist is similarly lukewarm about the film saying that it has more substance than other Cronenberg’s efforts, but its ultimately flawed:
All in all, it’s a pacy, absorbing picture, and one of real substance (certainly more so than the enjoyable, but somewhat hollow “Eastern Promises”). But if anything keeps it from quite hitting the heights that it could, it’s Hampton’s scripting. It’s not so much the uncompromising manner of the material—an audience member could probably get by on the briefest knowledge of psychoanalysis, which in this day and age most have, and, while the dialogue is sometimes tortuously wordy, the cast are able to make it fly, with only one or two lines sounding clunky. It’s more that Hampton can’t quite stick the landing; Freud and Jung’s feud over the latter moving into more radical, mystical territory isn’t really adequately covered, while a break and then a resumption of the affair between Jung and Sabina kills the momentum of the thing.
Justin Chang of Variety dedicates portions of his review to talk about Keira Knightley and he has mostly positive things to say:
Rather less assured, and initially the film’s most problematic element, is Knightley, whose brave but unskilled depiction of hysteria at times leaves itself open to easy laughs. The spectacle of the usually refined actress flailing about, taking on a grotesque underbite, and stammering and wailing in a Russian accent is perhaps intended to clash with her co-stars’ impeccable restraint, but does so here in unintended ways. But as Sabina’s condition improves, so does Knightley’s performance, eventually registering the mix of tenderness and tenacity that presumably made Spielrein such a force in her mentors’ lives.
Guy Lodge of In Contention spends time covering the performances and he reserves his highest praise for Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel:
As if terrified into submission by his co-star’s entrance, Fassbender spends the rest of the film quizzically underplaying, his Jung permanently considering his words before releasing them so tightly he can suck them back in through his teeth if required; he gives the film a solid spine, but it’s the more relaxed, sardonic delivery of Mortensen — plus Vincent Cassel, in a relishable cameo as a sex-addicted patient offering Jung seductive arguments for polygamy — that provides the film with its most immediate pleasures.
Stay tuned for more reviews from the Venice Film Festival.
This is a film where I think we need to hear more reactions before making a final decision. Todd McCarthy’s response seemed to indicate great things for the film, but the rest of the reviews are less kind. This movie was my early pick to go all the way and I think that I can safely say that I am wrong on that assertion. We will find out soon if critics in Telluride and Toronto are over-the-moon like McCarthy or unimpressed like the rest. For now I would take it out of my top ten list for Best Picture and top five for Best Director.
As for the performances the most talked about cast member seems to be Keira Knightley, although she receives equal parts criticism and praise. Michael Fassbender is described as “stiff” and Viggo Mortensen seems like he has less to do than was originally expected. Again we need to hear more reviews, but it sounds unlikely that any of the performances will be recognized this year.
Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups: