Intellectually stimulating above all, A Dangerous Method has been one of the more difficult films for me to assess. The precision and attention to detail is undeniably impressive, as are the uniformly tight performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud respectively. But there’s a particular dryness to the way in which the film is written; not so much in the actual dialogue or exchanges, but in the way the film connects scenes. The screenplay, written by Christopher Hampton and based on John Kerr’s book, lacks a sense of connected uniformity. Individual scenes work out impressively, but when put together, they seem fragmented and devoid of cinematic bravura.
It’s not to fault the film entirely on Hampton’s screenplay, as it’s hardly a bad work, but rather that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the cinematic. Hampton had initially written the screenplay as a stageplay, therein introducing some of the problems I have with the feature to begin with – it certainly feels like a play, wherein scenes of dialogue unfold in one area, before eventually transitioning to another scene where two individuals combat in verbal acrobatics.
Honestly though, listening to Fassbender and Mortensen play out their roles and discussing theories of psychosexual development and anal fixation (all while Mortensen smokes a cigar; perpetually living out his own oral fixation theory) is worth viewing A Dangerous Method in itself. And the two banter in a way that make use of the material, as they are quite subdued and naturalistic in their performances. But it’s Kiera Knightly as Sabrina Spielrein who chews the scenery and completely revolts against the film’s restrained tone. To say she chews the scenery is an understatement here – she absolutely overwhelms the audience with her gaudy stammering and facial contortions to the point you have to wonder how someone like Fassbender could have kept a straight face throughout some of the film’s initial sequences. Knightly eventually finds her footing as the film progresses, but she is definitely operating under a different understanding of the material.
And there’s David Cronenberg. A Dangerous Method is not quite like any of his other films, as he is subscribing to a far more classical method of visual storytelling than even A History of Violence or Eastern Promises. I’ve read comparisons to Dead Ringers, but A Dangerous Method never really dabbles into an insatiably weird ideology – it’s fairly straightforward in its thinking, and at this point, Freud’s ideological framework isn’t exactly lurid material. But if Cronenberg is giving up his 80s obsession with physical horror, he is adhering to a far more subtle psychological horror that has allowed for the greater advancement of his formal technique. Precise and perceptive, A Dangerous Method may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it just might be his finest directorial effort.