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MOVIE REVIEW: Knightley, Mortensen stimulate audiences in ‘A Dangerous Method’

A Dangerous Method (R)

3 out of 4 stars

From the time he started in the early '70s and continuing through the end of the 20th century, director David Cronenberg cranked out over a dozen features, most of which were graphic sci-fi horror flicks. The majority of them were good enough to escape being labeled as B-films and in the mid-'80s he delivered three straight ("The Dead Zone," "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers") that were huge critical and box-office successes.

Perhaps because of age or a feeling of been-there-done-that, Cronenberg began the 21st century with "Spider," a psychological thriller that largely eschewed the explicit blood and gore that had come to be his calling card and has been following a similar path ever since. Now, instead of physical blood and guts, Cronenberg's choice of terror is the mental variety.

In the wake of his most recent efforts -- the two highly cerebral organized crime thrillers "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" -- Cronenberg gives us something we would have never expected from him -- a non-fictional, non-violent period-piece. First a book and then a play, "A Dangerous Method" delves into the origins of psychoanalysis and its two most famous and controversial practitioners -- Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).

If for no other reason, Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting the book by John Kerr) deserve high marks for compressing the many details of a thicketed story into a scant 96 minutes that would have taken most other directors twice as long to pull off. The visual shorthand is remarkable and offers a virtual clinic on streamline storytelling craft.

As the film opens, Jung is at a multitude of crossroads. He's recently married wealthy heiress Emma (Sarah Gadon) who is eager to start a family, has begun a professional correspondence with Freud and has started treating Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a paranoid schizophrenic Russian socialite.

Jung's method of treatment put an emphasis on word association and detecting patterns in his patients' answers. In one scene he does this with his wife and gets more frank, eye-opening responses than he'd likely expected. His work with the quick study Spielrein goes so well that it gets her to consider becoming a doctor herself, and the closer she gets to normal the more intimate their relationship grows.

Initially Jung's mentor, Freud finds himself being considered more of a contemporary and he starts to do a slow burn. A man with a gargantuan ego, Freud's highly effective dream-interpretation therapy techniques also allowed him to get deep into the head of anyone in his company almost instantly. After learning of the non-professional relationship that had developed between Jung and Spielrein, Freud takes it upon himself to not only provide his blistering opinions on the matter but to also become something of a heavy-handed ethics enforcer.

Initially an early year-end front-runner, "A Dangerous Method" has impressed most but not enough to show up on many Top 10 lists or receive industry award nominations with the exception of Mortensen, who has now appeared in three consecutive Cronenberg films.

Cronenberg took a big chance with casting Knightley for such an emotionally-charged and demanding role -- one that far outdistances anything she's ever attempted. Pretty but generally regarded as lightweight, Knightley sinks her teeth into the role and -- depending on your own perspective -- either bit off more than she could chew or finally delivered on the early promise displayed in "Bend it Like Beckham."

For Fassbender -- an immensely talented actor who had significant roles in no less than four 2011 films -- his rendering of Jung here seems the least satisfying of lot. An Irishman born and raised in Germany, Fassbender -- likely at the urging of the director -- speaks in a flat, clipped monotone British accent that doesn't fit in with the rest of the characters. So light and airy is the performance, we barely notice it when his character shifts from protagonist to antagonist.

In a manner not unlike that of Woody Allen, Cronenberg has crossed the Atlantic and tackled a new style and type of subject matter no one would have ever predicted back when he was the reigning king of gore. At a time when most people are well into retirement, Cronenberg and Allen are reinventing themselves and succeeding admirably. (Sony Classics)