Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi

(“To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.”)

– Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

When one thinks of psychology, very few would think to associate it with physics. Yet, the origins of Sigmund Freud’s elaborate theories in human dynamism and motivation stem from late 19th century progress in applying principles of energy conservation to thermodynamics, electromagnetism and nuclear physics. Bit of a stretch, you may think, but not so when one considers the very early considerations of Freud’s work, before his work on sexuality and childhood repression. This is the stuff of dynamic physiology and subsequent ‘psychic energy’ which Freud considered the means by which the human personality is transformed, and eventually upon which he would eventually found psychoanalytic theory.

Such a view is a highly appropriate one when considering Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, or rather, the brilliant Christopher Hampton’s screenplay The Talking Cure. The dialogue is a razor’s edge balance of psychoanalytic jargon and forces that modulate human relationships; an exercise in force and constraint with a veritable a push-and-pull of transformative energy states of which von Brücke would approve. As a theatrical production (recalling the 2003 production at the National Theatre in London), the script becomes incendiary, relishing bite in all the dark places. Unfortunately, the film adaptation is an oddly mottled and disjointed remnant of Hampton’s screenplay, and becomes a sorely disappointing affair.

The first problem is the editing, which is jarring and disorienting. Oddly enough, Cronenberg’s trademark habit of lingering uncomfortably within certain scenes is dismissed, and moments which ought to require further contemplation are hurriedly rushed over in favour of the next. However, the more troubling issue is the acting. Although both Fassbender and Mortensen are good – Fassbender again is a master of restraint, aptly portraying Jung’s gradual loss of pristine control; and Mortensen is fairly convincing as Freud, though slightly less impactful for short screentime, as compared to the instant charisma of Christoph Waltz – the most screentime is devoted to Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein. As an actress, Knightley has never been particularly impressive, and in this film, achieves a new degree of dramatic incompetence. The role itself is a fascinating one, and as such, requires an actress of demonstrably superior nuanced ability and skill to prevent the role from veering into histrionics (I am again reminded of Jodhi May’s performance in the 2003 production). Knightley is not such an actress, and is severely ill-equipped for such a demanding role, instead becoming parodically ridiculous and trying to watch (ironically, Spielrein’s characteristic perverse lower jaw protruding motion seems to be a heightened exaggeration of Knightley’s usual mode d’emploi in every other film). All actors though seem to suffer from an almost too tightly pointed direction from Cronenberg, and instead of being able to convey emotion to the audience, feeling is lost in the psychobabble and language-obfuscated emotional restriction (ironically, the very thing psychoanalysis tries to deconstruct).

The acting problem truly is unfortunate, especially considering the success with which Cronenberg has constructed the nature of the relationship between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud. Without requiring explicit reference, the characters are metaphorically positioned as the id, ego, and super-ego, conflicting in constant opposition to one another. The symbolism and metaphors come off as slightly heavy-handed (the allusions to Civilisation & its Discontents, The Interpretation of Dreams, and Jung’s memoirs are intellectually apt but eerily non-resonant), but result in a fantastically constructed dynamic that perfectly mirrors the respective theories of Jung and Freud. However, cohesion is again lost as awkward scene shifts are made between Jung and Freud’s discourse to the ongoing melodrama between Jung and Spielrein; the ending is decidedly unsatisfactory in both regards.

Despite its picturesque authenticity of turn-of-the-century Vienna, A Dangerous Method is not a period piece, nor do I believe it was intended to be. The intended showcase of the film is the dialogue and acting, and in an ideal world, the two would be synchronously intertwined, resulting in a searing and complex portrayal of a fascinating human triangle. However, something is tragically lost in this attempt, and the result is a slightly clumsy and unfulfilling adaptation, driven into the ground by Knightley’s tragic performance.