Michael Fassbender continues on his role as chameleon actor with his straight-laced Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung trying to determine what exactly ails his new patient Sabine Spielrein, a disturbed girl who has more to her than meets the eye.
Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) adapted his play based on the John Kerr non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method. The story focuses on Jung: his duties as husband and father to his family, including his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon); his rocky professional friendship with colleague Sigmund Freud (a stiff and humorous Viggo Mortensen); and, most importantly, his relationship to Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), which eventually reaches an intimate level that blurs the line between doctor and patient. Vincent Cassel is also in the cast as the non-monogamous doctor Otto Gross, who also becomes a patient of Jung’s at one point. In fact, every main character outside of Emma Jung plays doctor to somebody’s patient and vice-verse in some instance. It’s one big psychoanalytical fest where one door opens another door to yet another, sometimes closed, door.
Director David Cronenberg keeps things rather light all the way through, all the while capturing the emotional turmoil of Spielrein, an intelligent, but disturbed woman who can’t distinguish her sexuality from childhood humiliation. As one might expect, Cronenberg further indulges his curiosity into the sexual nature of human beings, only this time, he has left his trademark milieus of science-fiction and gore behind. He pretty much shoots for the heart of his ongoing interests by delving into the minds of Jung and Freud, the pioneer of early prominent sexual studies. His depictions are as restrained as the pre-WWI setting, which frees the director to focus on the story.
Fassbender’s tight wire-rimmed glasses turn his blue eyes into beady, discerning orbs. Jung is constantly examining his conduct in both his professional and personal lives. Sabine presents an opportunity which can turn both his worlds upside down. While she may unmask greater truths, getting to the heart of her dilemma will demand sacrifices on Jung’s part. The irony is that it is Sabine who will be most better off for it.
Knightley’s performance is not for all tastes. Some will criticize her rather consistent Russian accent (outside of a wonky opening scene). Some will disparage her physical manifestations of Sabine’s shameful, repressed and confused childhood memories as indicating to embarrassing degrees. But, coupled with the methods Jung and Sabine take to reconcile her past and find pride in herself, Knightley’s turn is nothing short of daring. For so long, I’ve been waiting for her to break out and show us what she’s got beyond her jutting jaw, comely neck and sometimes infectious personality. Here, she’s gone for broke and she’s better for it. There is such a fine line between retaining Sabine as a real person or turning her into a cartoon. Some may argue Knightley may have done the latter. I certainly do not. And something tells me this movie is only a warm-up to next year’s Anna Karenina. If she continues on this path, then she may create a career for herself not unlike that of Kate Winslet’s.
There is plenty of letter-writing in this early 20th-century set film that hurries along tedious, expository elements of the film. There are plenty of ideas thrown about concerning theories on human nature and the Jewish identity (including both Spielrein, Freud and Gross). At the heart, however, is a very unconventionally feminist take on the coming age of a young woman.