Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Little Less Conversation -- Reflections on "A Dangerous Method" (2011)

No kissing! More talking!
One of the most challenging things to do in a movie is shoot a really good dialogue-heavy scene. Even if the dialogue is interesting, often watching two characters talk to each other is the cinematic equivalent of watching a round of golf on a Sunday afternoon. It is not as simple as putting two characters on a set, pointing the camera and shouting “Action!” Movies are predominantly an action-driven medium – we expect to see things happen on the screen, after all – and characters talking isn’t very action-oriented.

David Cronenberg, one of the great directors, took on an incredible task in directing A Dangerous Method. The film, based on the play A Talking Cure, by John Kerr, is very dialogue laden. Characters’ discourses often span across multiple scenes, through the use of letters, and involve very academic dialogue. As a result, the movie often feels like a real drag. Yet, Cronenberg’s cast is more than up for the challenge, and despite some dull moments, A Dangerous Method is a riveting film.

The story centers on the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Their relationship, both personal and professional, represented the two major views of early modern psychological theory. Jung finds himself enamored of Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis and applies it to the therapy of a new patient, the wild and disturbed Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The method works, but it opens the door to a passionate sexual affair between Jung and Sabina, forcing Jung to question himself, his ideas, and his theories about the purposes of psychology.

The film’s greatest asset is Fassbender, who plays Jung with a restrained passion. His gestures and mannerisms reveal a man of great intellect who doesn’t understand how to deal with his own psychological issues. This irony brings him great turmoil as the story unfolds, and Fassbender handles the material without ever falling into the trap of melodrama or caricature. He is proving quickly to be one of the finest young actors on the scene today, as 2011 saw him in as varied roles as that of Magneto in X-Men: First Class and as a sex addict in Shame. While his role in this film isn’t as electrifying (or physically revealing) as his role was in Shame, his portrayal of Jung is far more subtle and nuanced. This is an actor to watch for in the coming years.

While Fassbender is excellent, Mortensen and Knightley are also quite good as well. This is almost expected of Mortensen, who is very choosy about which movies he wants to be in. A Dangerous Method is his third film with Cronenberg (the other two were Eastern Promises and A History of Violence), and it is proving to be a rewarding partnership. Mortensen sinks his teeth into the role of Sigmund Freud, and manages to find the ironies and contradictions in the man’s character while never devolving into classic stereotypes. Granted, his Freud is always sucking on a cigar and walking around in a cloud of smoke, but it serves more as a reminder of his own screwed up psychology than it does as a visual cue highlighting in gaudy lights that THIS IS SIGMUND FREUD! Knightley, often accused of not being much of an actress (despite an impressive performance in 2010’s Never Let Me Go), is terrific as Sabina, playing her disturbance and neuroses with a shame and horror instead of the go-for-the-gusto craziness others might attempt. Her progression as a character, from asylum-bound loon to respected researcher/psychiatrist is both believable and fascinating.

A Dangerous Method relies very heavily on its performances, and each delivers. And while I would have loved more action, I’m not sure this could have been possible. Cronenberg works hard to make 13-hour conversations great cinema, and while he’s not always effective at doing so, his efforts don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. This is a solid movie, but if you’re expecting lots of stuff happening, this is not your cigar.

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