David Cronenberg's film seeks to illuminate the two pioneers of psychoanalysis — the "father," Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and his acolyte, Carl Jung. In the decade prior to World War I, the two agree, then disagree, before breaking up. It is Jung (Michael Fassbender) who has the more volatile path: He becomes intimately involved with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley), and later seeks to expand the field of psychoanalysis beyond its bedrock of repressed sexuality into less "scientific" areas like mysticism. Along the way he suffers from doubt, repressed desire (in time, fully expressed with some spanking) and the confusion that comes from balancing his well-to-do gentleman's life with his chosen field, the "dangerous method."
The film is beautifully shot, with gorgeous interiors and costumes, and Fassbender and Mortensen can be exciting actors. (Knightley is simply excited — too excited.) But somehow this parlor drama-cum-primer never becomes compelling, choosing to talk about passions without conveying any. It's not necessary that Jung vs. Freud devolve into, say, an invented shoving match in the streets of Vienna, but even the most high-minded may be bored by feuds that occur via letter.
Certainly, one expects more heat from Cronenberg when dealing with the repression of troublesome emotions and desires. But this dullish if respectable film could just as easily be a BBC production: well-produced, starring reputable actors, and interesting without being especially gripping or memorable. Starts Fri., Jan. 27.