Telluride 2011: 'A Dangerous Method,' Particularly Keira Knightley's Performance, Proves Divisive

David Cronenberg's latest film tells the story of a woman who came between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

On Sunday evening, I caught the second Telluride Film Festival screening of David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, one of Sony Pictures Classics' big awards hopefuls this year, which had its world premiere a few days ago in Venice Film Festival, then made its stateside debut here late on Saturday night, and will head across the border to the Toronto International Film Festival later this week. Reaction to the film in both Venice and Telluride, thus far, has been decidedly mixed, but its fate should be determined once and for all after it is shown to the much larger audiences of moviegoers and critics in Toronto.

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The film revolves around the little-known but apparently true story of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a troubled young Russian woman who came between two of the great early psychoanalysts, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his older role model, friend, and "father-figure" Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), potentially jeopardizing the movement for which they had both worked so hard just as it was beginning to take hold.

The story was first told in John Kerr's 1994 book A Most Dangerous Method, and then became a passion project of acclaimed playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who had previously won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and would be nominated for it again for Atonement (2007). In the mid-nineties, Hampton was commissioned to adapt that book into a screenplay, but the project collapsed so he turned it into a play at London's National Theatre, after which Cronenberg approached him about a new movie version.

Like all Cronenberg films, it is gorgeously shot, strongly acted, and a bit twisted. It's slower-paced and less gripping than his two most recent films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), but it's still interesting and engaging enough.

Reaction to Knightley's performance has been deeply divided -- she opens the film in a hysterical state that some have found to be a bit over-the-top, and her Russian accent has been dogged on, too -- but I was impressed by the fact that the A-list beauty and perennially underappreciated actress was willing to be so vulnerable on camera (she also has several scenes in which she is partially nude), and I think that she could connect with enough people to score an Oscar nod... that is, if SPC and she are willing to swallow their pride and push her in supporting (which looks wide-open this year) instead of lead (which is absolutely packed).

Fassbender, meanwhile, is certainly having a "moment," between this film and Shame, which is also stirring up buzz on the festival circuit. Even at this early stage of his career, it is clear that the 34-year-old is a chameleon of an actor who will be around for a long time. He has played everything from a skeletal hunger striker in Hunger (2008) to an iconic literary character in Jane Eyre (2011), and can now add 19th century thinker and 21st century sex addict to his list of credits.

Mortensen -- who has become Cronenberg's muse, of sorts, having also starred in his last two pictures -- is one of the most understated and magnetic actors working today. Apparently, he only joined this production as a favor to Cronenberg after another actor dropped out of the part and shot all of his scenes in just a few days, and without having the amount of time that he usually has to prepare. If true, that makes his performance all the more impressive. As SPC co-chief Michael Barker told me on Saturday night, "Who would have imagined that Freud was so charismatic? But the film makes you realize that he had to have been."

Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon are only in the film for a few minutes each, but also do a nice job in their respective parts.

At the end of the day, in a year in which only five best picture nominees are guaranteed, I have my doubts about the film's prospects in the top category. Cronenberg has never been Oscar-nominated for directing, even for more widely-accessible films than this one, so I think he may be out of luck, as well. Hampton is certainly highly-regarded and should have a shot at another best adapted screenplay nod. Fassbender's performance, despite being very good, is probably not showy enough to crack the best actor race. So, in my estimation, the film's best awards hopes rest with Mortensen for best supporting actor (I'd say he has a decent shot) and Knightley (that is, if she goes supporting instead of lead).