'A Dangerous Method'

Liam Daniel/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

David Cronenberg takes on sex and death, via Freud and Jung, without exploding heads.

We have to go into uncharted territory," observes psychiatrist Carl Jung in regard to his pioneering work -- and the complex, fascinating topic of Jung's and Sigmund Freud's touchy relationship and eventual falling out over a beautiful, sexually hysterical patient has been grippingly explored by director David Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton. Precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined, this story of boundary-testing in the early days of psychoanalysis is brought to vivid life by the outstanding lead performances of Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. It's sure to be well received (except, perhaps, by orthodox adherents of both physicians).

The film tackles thorny psychosexual issues and matters of professional ethics with a frankness that feels contemporary. Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is a young Russian woman put under the care of Jung (Fassbender) at the Burgholzli mental hospital outside Zurich in 1904. Clearly intelligent, she also is subject to seizures so violent, it looks as though she might turn inside out (if this were a different sort of Cronenberg film, she might have done so).

Screaming and alarmingly jutting out her jaw in extremis, Knightley starts at a pitch so high as to provoke fear of where she'll go from there. Fortunately, the direction is down; as her character, under Jung's fastidious care, gradually gets a grip on her issues and can assess herself with a measure of intellectual composure, the performance modulates into something fully felt and genuinely impressive.

Despite having to cover stages in the trio's relationships that span many years, Hampton's screenplay utterly coheres and never feels episodic. The dialogue is constantly confrontational, articulate and stimulating, the intellectual exchanges piercing at times. Cronenberg's direction is at one with the writer's diamond-hard rigor, and the editing has a bracing sharpness than can only be compared to Kubrick's.

Along with Knightley's excellent work as a character with a very long emotional arc, Fassbender brilliantly conveys Jung's intelligence, urge to propriety and irresistible hunger for shedding light on mysteries of the human interior. A drier, more contained figure, Freud is wonderfully portrayed by Mortensen in a bit of unexpected casting that proves entirely successful.