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DVD Review: Freud

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A two-disc set of the 1984 six-part BBC docudrama on the life of the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud is now available on DVD. Written by Carey Harrison, the series stars David Suchet, noted for his performances as Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, as Freud. Helen Bourne plays his wife Martha and Suzanne Bertish his sister-in-law, Minna. A gaggle of very fine British character actors, including Michael Pennington as Jung, David Swift as Josef Breuer, and Michael Kitchen as Ernst Von Fleischel, rounds out the cast.

It is Suchet however who carries the series. His performance is nuanced and specific. He rarely indulges in scenery-chewing histrionics, so when he allows the character moments of anger and passion, those moments are all the more effective.

Beginning with his early studies in medicine and his attempt to make a name for himself and earn a living, the series follows Freud through a lengthy courtship, his researches into cocaine use and hypnosis, difficulties with his religion, the blossoming of his thinking about the mind as the source of physical problems. We witness the success and controversies his work created and his eventual problems with disciples like Jung and Adler, ending with his last days in England burdened by his oral cancer.

Since Suchet has to deal with Freud's ideas and theories as well as his emotional relationships, his task is not an easy one. Externalizing the interior workings of a character's mind is the job of the actor, but explaining concepts like the stages of infant sexuality and dream symbolism without sounding like a lecturer in Introduction to Psychology takes some careful preparation. More often than not, the ideas are presented in argument to some colleague who does his best to damp down Freud's enthusiasm, if he doesn't indulge in outright ridicule. The conflict creates the needed drama. The irony of how commonly these contentious ideas came later to be accepted as gospel, and then once again the subject of controversy provides a further level of interest for the audience. Suchet's Freud is a man ambitious for himself, willing to compromise at first, but gradually becoming more and more committed to his ideas, eventually reaching the point of refusing to tolerate dissent. He is a man both sure of himself, yet filled with insecurities. Suchet's performance embodies the man's contradictions.

By the way, there is some excellent work in the smaller roles as well. Miriam Margolyes does a bravura turn as a baroness suffering from female hysteria. Dinsdale Landen plays the French hypnotist Charcot with the flair of a magical showman working his audience. Pennington's Jung is at first almost sycophantic in his hero worship, only to become an accusatory inquisitor in Freud's late life hallucinations. Suzanne Bertish is fetchingly coquettish as the sexual foil to Helen Bourne's repressed wife.

Each episode begins with the older Freud dying in England. His wife and sister-in-law are with him, but he is really being cared for by his daughter, Anna. The sick man's mind wanders back to the past, and important moments in his life are highlighted. Incidents and conversations foreshadow his more famous theories. He tries to help one friend battle morphine addiction. He has repressed memories of his relations with his Catholic governess. He visits Rome and artistic representations of the Madonna and Child suggest the child's sexual attraction to the mother. Dream sequences are used to illustrate his ideas about symbolism expression. Sessions with patients demonstrate the growth of the analytic process. The final episode deals with the dying man and his memories of the past, reviewing things that we have seen before, but changing them, sometimes in small ways, sometimes altering them completely, sometimes creating something quite different from what we saw the first time.

The DVD set contains two interviews with Suchet. He talks about Freud and, most interestingly, he talks about his acting process. There is a collection of still shots and bits of memorabilia both about Freud and the production taken from the actor's own archive. This includes things like Freud's business card and newspaper accounts of BBC production.

Director Moira Armstrong shot a good bit of the film on location. Conversations take place while characters are hiking in the woods or strolling in gardens. Italian ruins, cathedrals, and museums provide scenic backdrops. Unfortunately the color seems at times a bit washed out, but overall the location shooting prevents the film from becoming overly claustrophobic.

One caveat: while all the actors playing Austrians and Germans and even Charcot, the Frenchman, speak with their normal British accents, yet for some reason the Russians speak with a Russian accent. Also the offstage voice that introduces Freud to the audience for his speech at Clark University speaks with an American accent, and seems to mispronounce pedagogy.

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