It’s true. The pen is mightier than the sword…especially as wielded by the fierce intellects of Doctors Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their lesser known patient, colleague and catalyst, Sabina Spielrein.
Words—written and spoken—are the weapons of choice in this spellbinding drama about the infancy of psychoanalysis set in the lushly portentous atmosphere of pre-World War I Zurich and Vienna. And as articulated by Viggo Mortensen (Freud), Michael Fassbender (Jung) and a fearless Keira Knightly (Sabina) they are as dangerous as the title infers. In fact, the most damaging words—those that cause the deepest rifts and angriest responses—are read aloud from their correspondence.
(Screen) writing credit for these words goes to Christopher Hampton, who adapted his play “The Talking Cure” to the screen, as well as to the book “A Dangerous Method” by John Kerr on which both are based. But the lion’s share of this film’s success belongs to director David Cronenberg , who cut his teeth on disturbing projects like “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers” and “Crash” (which he also scripted) and more recently, ”A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.” As suggested by the two later films, Cronenberg has perfected the ability to create apprehension without resorting to the gimmicks of his early screenplays and in this case, absent traditional plot, relying on his characters to build overwhelming tension.
The story, which is apparently true and derived from Spielrein’s recovered diaries and correspondence with Jung and Freud, begins in 1904 when she is delivered kicking and screaming to the Swiss hospital where Jung has just begun his career. In fact, the 18-year-old heiress is a Russian Jew, educated in Germany, whose erratic behavior—and Knightley’s intense performance—easily qualify her as a “hysteric.” Jung, a deadly serious physician fascinated by Freud’s controversial methods, decides she is an excellent candidate for Freud’s ‘talking cure. And he’s right. Within a year he uncovers a history of paternal physical abuse and its association with sexual gratification. The case leads Jung and his forebearing, quintessentially Victorian wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) to Freud’s doorstep in Vienna where the two men initiate a dialogue that continues for a total of 13 uninterrupted hours. Mortensen abandons his usually aggressive character roles here to portray Freud as a fatherly figure both complacent in his theory that all mental illness is rooted in sexuality, and wary of its being challenged lest he lose the shaky ground on which he has established his reputation—not to mention the acceptance of psychoanalysis by the skeptical Viennese medical community.