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Guest Post: Critics Are from Mars, Actresses from Venus

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by Neely Swanson
January 9, 2012 9:26 AM
3 Comments
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Keira KNnghtley

Critics! Can’t live with them, can act without them.

Why won’t critics accept raw emotion that’s honestly and accurately depicted? Why do they applaud nudity and fake sexual intercourse, but react to sensual scenes from the heart as if they’ve been forced to digest spoiled food? Why are they so selective about the actors they’ll allow to project heart-felt emotions?

Let’s ask Keira Knightley.

I recently attended a screening of A Dangerous Method, written by the incomparable Christopher Hampton and directed by David Cronenberg, starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Vincent Cassel in the small role of the manipulatively mad Otto Gross and the aforementioned Ms. Knightley as their patient Sabina Spielrein. The film dramatizes the complicated and unraveling relationship between psychiatrists Freud and Jung at the turn of the century.

Hampton’s sources include his play The Talking Cure, John Kerr’s book A Dangerous Method, and Jung’s personal notebooks (to which the screenwriter was given access while searching mental hospital case histories in the Burghölzli, the Zurich hospital where Jung practiced). The story reveals much about mental illness and its treatment at the time. Contemporaneous photos of 19th Century women suffering from Hysteria are extraordinarily similar to Knightley’s depiction. Clinical diagnosis of hysteria was vividly chronicled at great length by Jean Martin Charcot, arguably the most important neurologist of the 19th Century and a teacher of Freud, Joseph Babinsky, William James, Alfred Binet, Gilles de la Tourette, and Pierre Marie, among other luminaries.  

In the hands of a lesser director than Cronenberg, this might have been quality naptime, but the hook here is the mentally ill, brilliant Spielrein. While Jung’s patient, she ostensibly widened the gulf both professionally and personally between the two founders of psychiatry. Although superbly played all around, it is Ms. Knightley’s performance that becomes the lynch pin. She must portray the madness and agonizing recovery that eventually lead to Spielrein’s return to intellectual strength and stability. The “talking cure” not only worked, the intimate sessions led to an affair with Jung. She eventually became one of the world’s foremost child psychiatrists, even mentoring Piaget before returning to her native Russia.

I truly believed in her performance, but I may be in the minority, as she has received considerable criticism for her portrayal of clinical hysteria. Justin Chang, writing for Variety, even criticized the “overbite” she affected while in the throes of madness. Roderick Morris, reviewing for the New York Times at the Venice Film Festival, felt Ms. Knightley should have toned her performance down. Xan Brooks, writing for The Guardian, snarkily declared, “Keira Knightley provides the Oscar bait with a fleeting display of stage-managed pyrotechnics.”

Oscar bait? Overbite? Tone it down? How dare she open her heart to such august company! Critics clearly prefer a more passive, sedate madness.

The courageous Ms. Knightley bared her soul and revealed her naturally slim (read: flat-chested) body in painful, raw, masochistic sex scenes. Alas, for an actress as young, beautiful, insouciante and popular as Keira Knightley, the baying wolves are never far behind, as Christopher Hampton recounted after a screening when discussing the reaction of British critics to her performance.

I think Charcot might have viewed Ms. Knightley’s portrayal more favorably than film critics. Certainly Jung would have, for as previously mentioned, Knightley’s portrayal is based on Jung’s confidential notes on Spielrein’s behavior, although Hampton revealed that the cinematic outcome is a toned-down version of Jung’s descriptions.

If you choose not to like Keira Knightley, so be it. But please don’t dismiss her because you might judge her portrayal of Sabina Spielrein to be indelicate, inarticulate, or inaccurate. It’s none of these.

So what’s the deal? Beautiful actresses have often been dismissed as lightweights when it came to dramatic roles; dismissed, that is, until one key factor to their commercial success was removed—beauty. How seriously was Nicole Kidman taken before she donned a fake nose for her portrayal of Virginia Woolfe? How about Charlize Theron and the prosthetics used to transform her into a butch-lesbian serial killer? And Halle Berry as a dirty (yet still somehow lovely) poverty stricken prostitute?

My career advice to Knightley is that she transform into an wizened crone for her next film. Clearly critics, reveling in their own plainness of appearance, supercilious intellectualism and compulsions to express bitchiness, could then forget the freshness, bright-eyed enthusiasm, commercial appeal, and unapologetic beauty for which she is known. Hopefully, at this very moment, someone is writing the role of a crippled, misshapen serial killer who must turn to prostitution in order to provide for her deaf child. Now that’s Oscar bait!

So, Keira, bring out the prosthetics. Make those critics laugh and cry. Get that Oscar. Then return to seriously acting from your heart.

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Neely Swanson, a former development executive in television and adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, writes a blog about film and television writers (No Meaner Place), contributes to the Research Wrap Blog and reviews film for her local paper.

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3 Comments

  • M | January 9, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    If we're going to enter into a discussion of attitudes about women in concern to A Dangerous Method, it's remiss not to mention both the entirely problematic world of hysteria and also how Spielrein's life is treated in this film. Hysteria was a flawed diagnosis used as a catch-all for any number of issues a woman might be suffering from irritation to psychosis. It wasn't some distinct affliction. Since Jung labeled her as "hysteric," Knightley's Spielrein then became a visual embodiment of Charcot's images. Essentially, her performance is a passive acceptance of hysteria as a specific ailment defined by those old photos, which I find quite problematic and neither honest nor accurate. Outside of this, Knightley excelled at giving the woman depth, though the film marginalized her just as much as the men in her life.

    These are not sensual scenes from the heart. This is a man who let his work be influenced by his lust, whose treatment was biased and problematic. Her feelings could never be separate from her treatment because they existed simultaneously. Jung was both drawn to this woman and felt a need to exert control over her; he and Freud were dismissive of her, while Jung also appropriated some of her work, her contribution nothing more than a footnote for years. These were men who looked at her like "the little girl" and "little authoress." http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/8718211/Jung-Love-Sabina-Spielrein-a-forgotten-pioneer-of-psychoanalysis.html

    This is Spielrein filtered through that titillated, enamored and condescending Jung, a male-dominated society, a problematic diagnosis, and then through Hampton and Cronenberg. It's as from-the-heart as 5 levels of male filtering can allow, and certainly open to critiques of its flaws, to which I found many.

    As for beauty, there are certainly problematic notions revolving around women in Hollywood, but I'm not sure where you've seen dismissal before they masked their beauty. Charlize Theron was always the love interest and wife. Monster was the first film she was able to command the screen by herself, so naturally it would bring her more respect than her previous roles. Same for Halle in Monster's Ball, though she also had a lot of schlock fluff before that role. Before The Hours, Nicole Kidman had an Oscar nomination, two BAFTA noms, two Globe noms and two Globe wins amongst other awards. If we are dismissing beautiful actresses, there's no one that gets acclaim because when does Hollywood allow for career leading ladies that aren't?

  • OlgaH | January 9, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    I thought it was a very brave performance. I'm not surprised at all that some couldn't handle it.

  • MTL | January 9, 2012 11:28 AMReply

    Perhaps some members of the press have formed a bias against her, but in general I don't believe that people who criticize her performance in certain movies or disliked her take on Sabina Spielrein do it out of displaced projection over their own"plainness of appearance, supercilious intellectualism" and need to snark on a target. That's almost a lazy argument worthy of actors' ardent fan defenders, as people may have a really nuanced take on the specific reason they don't believe in such and such's performance, but don't expressedly write down all the reasons why they do so, out of word economy. This is coming from someone who greatly enjoyed some of Knightley's performances, disliked others, and can see valid points on those who didn't believe her Spielrein.

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