Viggo Mortensen, left, plays Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender portrays… (Liam Daniel / Sony Pictures…)
"A Dangerous Method," the intellectually stimulating look at the formative days of psychoanalysis, presents Viggo Mortensen in a transformative performance as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as his restrained protégé and rival, Carl Jung, and a bold Keira Knightley as the patient-turned-practitioner who came between them. But it was almost a Julia Roberts movie.
"I first heard of and was intrigued by the story of Sabina Spielrein in a book by Aldo Carotenuto, 'A Secret Symmetry,'" says screenwriter Christopher Hampton of the character played by Knightley. "In the '90s, Julia Roberts' company sent me John Kerr's [related] book ["A Most Dangerous Method"], and I jumped at the chance of using it as the basis for a screenplay. The resulting script was called 'Sabina,' and for one or another of the usual reasons, was not going to get made."
Hampton's partner persuaded him to transform the story into a play, "The Talking Cure," which he focused on Jung and which starred Ralph Fiennes in its London production.
"What fascinated me most … was that this more-or-less-unknown woman had in some sense been responsible for bringing together Freud and Jung, had suggested or at least discussed with them many of their most seminal ideas and then played at least some part in their final tumultuous split, which she greatly deplored."
The film opens with Spielrein's arrival in 1904 at Jung's clinic in Zurich in the throes of body-wrenching, face-distorting hysteria. Jung accepts her as a patient who might respond to a type of treatment proposed by Freud: talking. As Spielrein's issues become clear — beatings by her father lead to sexual arousal — so too does her intellect and her attraction to the buttoned-down Jung.
Fassbender says of Jung and Spielrein, "It's a classic sort of transference going on there, between doctor and patient. And it is even beyond that, because when we meet Jung he's a young, ambitious doctor who feels like he's still got a lot to prove … you've got a guy who's very proper, and he's keeping everything seemingly controlled. But I sort of like the fact that he loves eating … so that means that there is a sensual quality to him. So it's in there.
"And then he meets Sabina … and then the opportunity for him to have a willing and very responsive patient to prove that this is the way that he should be going forward — they have a bond there immediately. And then her intellect and her courage, I think, start to attract him."
To some, the selection of director David Cronenberg — known for works sometimes graphically violent or otherwise disturbing — might have seemed odd. Not to Hampton.
"I've always liked and admired David Cronenberg's work; my only hesitation was that, having spent so long with the subject, I quite wanted to direct it myself," the writer says. "Fortunately, reason prevailed. I was surprised (and delighted) by his total confidence in the text, his feeling that an enclosed, hermetic atmosphere would benefit the story: It means that the explosion of emotion that occurs as the camera finally closes in on Jung, as he realizes what he has lost and struggles with the breakdown that for a time was to overwhelm him, is totally earned."
Frequent Cronenberg collaborator Mortensen, a Golden Globe nominee for his role, agrees that the director brought a deft touch to the proceedings. "He feels no need to prove with the camera, with how many setups and how complicated and strange and moody the camerawork is, that he knows a lot about the subject and knows how profound some of the things being said are. He shoots with an expert, light hand," the actor says. "The dialogue is dense, complex; the scenery, the costumes — everything about the movie is layered, psychologically, visually, so why do the same with the camera? Very smart, I thought."
It was his own participation in the project that brought him concern. Both director and actor knew casting "The Lord of the Rings'" swaggering Aragorn as the father of psychoanalysis was a stretch, but they overcame their misgivings. Surprisingly, it wasn't the physical changes that were most daunting for Mortensen. For him, it was the nonstop dialogue.
"The way Freud speaks and that he speaks so much compared to most of the characters I've played … he was a gifted wordsmith, a great conversationalist. Able to speak for two or three hours at a clip without a single mistake. Often infusing his speeches or conversations with wry humor you either get or don't get; he just plows ahead anyway without cracking a smile," says Mortensen. "To some degree, an intimidating role to take on if you're not used to it."
As for Fassbender, he was fascinated by the psychoanalysts' confrontation of social norms. But as the actor puts it, resistance to their movement wasn't limited to the squeamish; Freud himself had concerns about how to proceed.