As cinemagoers and telly watchers we are used to accomplished adaptations of fictions born on the page. Whether it’s the BBC’s latest Jane Austen costume drama or blockbusters like the Harry Potter series, we consume creations transformed from the page to the screen all the time. We are also accustomed to the fictionalisation and cinematic imaginings of happenings from history, with one of film’s latest trends being the increasing use of exciting events from the recent past. The likes of The Social Network and 127 Hours brought books about modern, real lives to the big screen.
But we are less used to films based on academic and extensively researched works of non-fiction. There is of course the occasional box office hit based on a lucky scholar’s lengthy biography or surprisingly successful history. However it’s rare for such books to be huge hits in print via Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith, let alone dominate in theatres. It normally takes a strong following of the book to persuade producers that the appetite is there for a lucrative movie. Or a particularly juicy subject matter, ripe for controversial or intriguing expansion and exploration.
In the case of A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr there is certainly the potential for controversy. His book, released in the early 1990s and based on new evidence, charts the relationship between commonly recognised pioneers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, which is controversial enough in itself. But its way into the world of intellectual competition and mental instability is the papers of Sabina Spielrein. She was a Russian patient of Jung’s, taken to a clinic in Zurich in 1904 at the age of 18. Her habits included “ill concealed masturbation”. And she and Jung had an affair.
As if that were not a sufficiently saucy and shocking cocktail, the nature of the affair remains scandalous even now. Jung was trying to drive forward a new profession and ensure its respect as a science and as a medical treatment. And yet he had an affair with one of his patients. An affair directly linked to his treatment and his probing of her condition. She was beaten as a child by her father and this sexually excited her. It doesn’t take much to imagine what she and Jung got up to. Sadomasochism enters the mix.
An official trailer for A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (which was based on Kerr’s original novel), is now online. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ7JKmcLTsI&feature=player_embedded
It stars Cronenberg’s usual partner in crime Viggo Mortensen as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Disappointingly for fans of Cronenberg and Mortensen’s previous collaborations, the story appears to focus on Jung, with Freud relegated to a secondary figure. The weight of the narrative therefore falls on rising star Fassbender, who also stars in a new Jane Eyre adaptation out later this year, and his chemistry with Knightley. Disappointingly for fans of history and good storytelling, Knightley’s role, from the trailer at least, appears to be that of kinky sex slave.
Even the slightest research into Kerr’s original work uncovers just how fascinating a story, a true story, he set out to tell. Spielrein was treated by Jung and she had some kind of sexual affair with him, although it may never have been consummated. She went onto graduate as a doctor and pursued her own career in psychoanalysis, playing a key role in bringing its breakthroughs back to Russia. She was treated by Freud but always remained attached to Jung.
Not only did Kerr tell this remarkable story with “verve devices” of storytelling and “scholarly precisions”, according a 1994 review in The Independent, but his book had a serious point. Aside from being part of a tantalising love triangle complicated by genius and a battle for the soul of a groundbreaking science, Sabina Spielrein sheds light on who was the more influential man; Jung or Freud. Kerr argues that Freud’s thinking was of its time and not revolutionary. In any case many of Freud’s and Jung’s ideas are recognised as plain wrong and outdated today but if one was more important in laying the true foundations of psychoanalysis, Kerr argues it was Jung. He helped create Freud’s reputation and was the “engine” of the profession’s growth.
Of course this is just Kerr’s opinion but it is backed by thorough research and is genuinely interesting. The trailer for A Dangerous Method focused on psychoanalysis for its first 40 seconds, before throwing Knightley into the mix as over the top, loony eye candy for Fassbender to drool over. The dialogue, from Fassbender, Knightley and Vincent Cassel, becomes shamelessly erotic; “never repress anything”/”I want you to punish me”/” why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts”. Surely Cronenberg hasn’t wasted his time on soft porn with period detail?
Probably not. It’s probably just the marketing approach of the trailer. And there are positives and great potential to be found within its brief runtime. The focus on Jung suggests that the general intellectual thrust of Kerr’s book, that Jung was more instrumental than Freud, will remain (although Mortensen does seem to be portrayed as an infrequent but superior wise figure). Cronenberg is hardly known for costumed drama and after the hard hitting History of Violence and Eastern Promises, we can expect something knew from him in this genre. There is also little wrong with well acted desire and I’m sure the full performances won’t disappoint.
The fact remains though that those behind the trailer for A Dangerous Method are following that age old principle of advertising; sex sells. The prospect of charismatic and fit X-Men star Fassbender having forbidden romps with a kinky and crazy Keira Knightley will interest millions, whilst Jung’s professional friendship and battles with Freud will lure considerably less. There is nothing wrong with humanising great figures from the past; it’s what great stories do and it can bring fact to life. But there is something wrong with completely destroying the intentions of a source born of one writer’s hard work. Even if the final film tells Sabina Spielrein’s full story and is truer to Kerr’s revisionist study, it will have sold some sensational half truths to tempt people to see it.
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I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.
The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner. The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.
Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.
The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.
The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.
But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.
At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.
With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.
The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.
And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.
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