There’s no overt violence in “A Dangerous Method.” The characters wear top hats or long pastel dresses and talk in a highly civilized manner while sipping coffee and puffing stogies.
But for all the gentility of its Merchant-Ivory trappings, the latest from filmmaker David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”) is right at home with his longstanding preoccupation with “abnormal” psychology.
More than just a case history, “A Dangerous Method” is about psychology with a capital P. It goes right to the source.
Michael Fassbender (who also stars in the just-opened “Shame”) stars as psychiatric giant Carl Jung. It’s the turn of the last century in picturesque Zurich, where Jung works at a mental hospital, attempting to cure his patients through psychotherapy instead of the often violent methods that in the past made such clinics a living hell.
He has a challenge with his latest case, a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who has been committed by her family. She is screaming, features-contortingly mad, tormented not only by her inner demons but by Tourette’s-like physical symptoms.
Watching her in full meltdown is terrifying.
Little by little, Jung overcomes Sabina’s hostility and doubts, finding beneath the freak-show behavior an astoundingly promising intellect. In violation of his private and professional rules of conduct, the married doctor begins an affair with his patient, going so far as to become her mentor when she enrolls in medical school with an eye to one day becoming a psychotherapist.
Meanwhile Jung must deal with his veneration of and growing estrangement from Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who is both a father figure and a rival.
Not only is the relationship between the two men strained by Jung’s breach of ethics involving Sabina (confronted by Freud, he denies it ever happened), but by a growing rift between the two over the direction each believes psychotherapy must take.
Jung has begun developing his theories of the collective unconscious and the metaphysical; Freud is appalled at this “voodoo” science.
And then there’s Sabina, brilliant enough to become one of the first women psychotherapists but still emotionally reliant on Jung — who is not about to leave the wife (Sarah Gadon) whose fortune funds his work.
Christopher Hampton’s literary screenplay is based on fact; most Jung scholars accept that he had an affair with Spielrein. And for fans of psychiatry the film is a sort of creation saga, with two god-like giants vying for supremacy.
For the casual viewer, though, “A Dangerous Method” starts out strong and then slowly runs out of steam. The opening moments of Sabina’s madness are tremendously dramatic, and there’s both genuine love and plenty of guilt in the Jung-Sabina affair.
But over time the film descends into insider’s baseball. Yes, the clash of titans that was the Jung-Freud relationship was hugely important. But here it pays ever-decreasing dramatic dividends.
That said, the performances are quite wonderful, with Fassbender finding the conflict beneath Jung’s placid exterior, Mortensen tamping down his screen-filling virility to play a man of ideas, and Knightley loosening all the stops to, first, raise our hair as a mad woman and, second, to elicit our sympathy as she loses the love of her life.