Movie review: A Dangerous Method

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From the January 26, 2012 edition

Madness! Sex! Cronenberg!

I’m typically not drawn in by period pieces, but for obvious reasons, I’m willing to make an exception for “A Dangerous Method.”

It’s a fascinating and juicy tale, directed with uncharacteristic restraint. It’s certainly not without edge, but it is also one of Cronenberg’s most thoughtful (and though-provoking) films.

Just before the first World War, fledgling psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is working to establish a name for himself in the field, no small feat when your mentor is Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

When a beautiful but deeply troubled patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) visits, Jung must wrestle with his own suppressed desires.

As Sabina recovers from her own madness, Jung finds himself embroiled in a sexual dalliance with her, against his better judgment as a therapist.

Coming off the career-revitalizing (and disturbing) films “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg takes a hard turn with “Method.”

As he explores the concepts of Jungian and Freudian theory, sexual desire was sure to play a role, though the sex is only mildly kinky and less graphic than expected. Even scenes involving spanking seem tame next to the Mortensen-Maria Bello sex scene in “History of Violence.”

This restraint gives room for the surprisingly talky script to breathe and some fine and varied performances from the leads.

Fassbender’s Jung comes delightfully unwound, as his stern persona gives way to an emotional storm lurking beneath when his affair turns tumultuous. This adds to his already stellar recent resumé, including his Oscar-snubbed turn in “Shame.”

Mortensen has become De Niro to Cronenberg’s Scorcese, this marking the third consecutive Cronenberg film he’s appeared in. His Freud is humorless and a bit vain, a great foil to Jung. And he enters the film smoking a cigar, which is presumably just a cigar.

An added bonus is a wild turn by Vincent Cassel — last seen as a domineering dance instructor in “Black Swan” — as fellow Freud disciple Otto Gross.

But it’s Knightley’s performance which will likely divide audiences. It’s certainly the most showy — particularly her early scenes in the throes of madness — but there’s also some range and nuance, as Sabina eventually becomes influential in the psychiatric field in her own right.

I was enthralled by both her performance and the film.