Going into this film, I had high hopes. It’s a dialogue-heavy sex-tinged drama that premiered at the Venice Film Festival to good reviews about the early days of psychology. Academy Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liasons) drafted the screenplay himself from his acclaimed play The Talking Cure for legendary director David Cronenberg (A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Fly) and legendary producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor). On top of that, an A-list ensemble of superb actors was cast: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, DAMN. This movie, on its key personnel alone, made it a Best Picture contender in my head. My old AP Psych teacher would show it in class next year, I was sure.
Then I heard the story: A historical fiction about the rise and fall of the friendship between psychologists Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Fassbender), all precipitated by a brilliant, but imbalanced, patient, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), who entrances both men.
This was gonna be amazing.
But it wasn’t.
Let’s start with the good: the acting. Fassbender, Knightley, Mortensen and Cassel portray their characters perfectly. It’s riveting to watch Fassbender and Knightley. They keep you hanging on the edge of your seat. Cassel has a good time with a fun part, and even Mortensen keeps Freud smug and sex-obsessed, as you would expect. (The film’s best line is: “The only reason Freud talks about sex so much is that he doesn’t get any”).
So the problem isn’t the acting. What is, you ask? The writing. I say this with a heavy heart, because Christopher Hampton has done brilliant work. Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement were great adaptations. Here, though, the dialogue fails to crackle; there’s no x factor. What Freud, Jung, Otto and Spielrein debate is interesting, it’s just that the way it’s debated isn’t. You notice his talent is there, in spurts. It’s like a lighter that you keep flicking but just won’t flame up. There’s evidence of a spark. It just doesn’t light up. The characters are solid. The fight Jung has with Freud, and with himself, is tangible. But it just doesn’t click. There’s no reason to care about them because we don’t see why we should invest in their relationship. Spielrein has an opportunity for a significant arc as well, but there’s very little that happens that makes her an interesting character beyond her on/off relationship with Jung.
Part of this could be directorial, as I could see how the material worked in a play. Cronenberg paces the film very deliberately. There’s no dynamic build. It all moves at 120 4/4 mezzopiano in C major, never slower, never faster, never louder nor quieter, never changing key. It’s shot beautifully and tastefully, the sexual tension is always palpable and the performances are obviously well-directed. However, by the final minutes, I was expecting something, well, interesting to happen. Then nothing did. It was just a cut to black. Like a midseason filler episode of a once-great TV drama on the decline.
I was so disappointed when I left the theatre. Maybe it was the huge hype I came into it with. But everyone else I went with, all screenwriting students of wildly varying taste, disliked the film. So I’m not alone here.
I’d like to say though, before I go, that if this supposed dream team was ever reassembled for a different Hampton work, I would still go see it in a heartbeat. They’ve all earned it.