By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 5, 2011 at 6:01AM
David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method has stirred up a wide range of reaction at Venice and Telluride. Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) conduct a brainy, controlled examination of the intense relationships between the pioneers of psychoanalysis, elder Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and younger accolyte Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and two well-educated but neurotic patients (Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassell) who challenge their ideas about sexuality and societal constraints. There's a lot going on in this intellectual historical drama, which is ably carried by some of the world's sexiest movie actors. (See a sampling of early reviews below.)
But while the movie is far more accessible than, say, Steve McQueen's also divisive and transgressive Fassbender-starrer Shame, Cronenberg is not pulling audiences into a fine romance. After all, orgasm via vigorous spanking is part of Fassbender and Knightley's lovemaking. Some reviewers reject Knightley's brave all-stops-out performance as an hysteric who learns to behave within societal norms. Cronenberg chose a sexy star over an actress who might have brought more depth to the role, say, Contagion's wondrous Jennifer Ehle, but Knightley doesn't throw off the movie.
A Dangerous Method raises issues about how doctors and patients, husbands and wives, and professional rivals should behave within society. If Freud analyzed his patients through a prism of sexual repression, Jung sought to give them tools for finding a path toward happiness. Both men and their followers had a huge impact on our evolving society, how we treat mental illness, and look at ourselves.
While I had seen many of the Cannes films at Telluride--which annointed The Artist as a crowd-pleaser heading for commercial and Academy success-- and I happily embraced the many pleasures of Alexander Payne's surefire Oscar-contender The Descendants, of the new films on display at Telluride, A Dangerous Method was the most provocative. That said, many moviegoers filing out were scratching their heads. Many critics and smart-house crowds will admire it, though, and Sony Pictures Classics will pursue a full-on Academy campaign for all categories, especially adapted screenplay and director. I don't see the movie and its edgy intellectuality playing for all Academy members. It's an acquired taste--and I suspect that those who've been in therapy will be more disposed toward appreciating this movie than the uninitiated.
"Precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined, David Cronenberg's film about boundary-testing in the early days of psychoanalysis is brought to vivid life by the outstanding lead performances of Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender."
"Even as the story settles into an epistolary structure, it seems to run along an unbroken current of ideas, and the two male leads bring a bone-dry wit to this battle of wills and egos…Rather less assured [than Fassbender and Mortensen], 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."
"Cronenberg has coaxed a performance from Knightley so ferocious in these early scenes that it seems likely to become the film's main talking point. It’s also a risky strategy, as Sabina’s behaviour is extreme to the point of being alienating."
"A mixed bag, a superbly acted, elegantly mounted feature, which still feels like a play and should be enjoyed the most by people who don’t know much about the origins of psychoanalysis…Here is a movie that should have been deeper, longer (running time is only 99 minutes), more controversial and more provocative, made as it is by the agent provocateur David Cronenberg, who has directed some of the most unsettling, challenging and critically acclaimed films over the past three decades…Instead, Cronenberg and Hampton have settled for a rather intimate, conventional, easy to digest theatrical melodrama."
"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."