Tag Archives: Keira Knightley

A Dangerous Method (Can/Ger/Switz/UK 2011)

Sabina (Keira Knightley) takes notes as she and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) play Wagner's Die Walküre to an audience in Jung's clinic

When I mused on the possibility of showing A Dangerous Method to A Level students a few months ago, it was suggested to me that it was too wordy – with the implication that students would be bored. Now I’ve seen the film, I wouldn’t worry about the dialogue at all. The narrative seemed to race along to me. If the film has a flaw it is in the closing stages of the narrative when I felt I was being rushed through some short scenes which spanned several years and in which a great deal of narrative development needed to be inferred. For such weighty subject matter the film is actually quite short (99 minutes) and at the end I was enjoying it so much that I could happily have taken another 30 mins. As usual, I read an interview with director David Cronenberg (in Sight and Sound March 2012) after seeing the film. Perhaps I should have read it first because the interview explained several points I’d puzzled about during the screening.

The ‘Dangerous Method’ is a reference to the ‘talking cure’ constituted by the nascent medical practice of psychoanalysis as practised by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna and taken up by the psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in Zürich in the early 1900s. At first there is almost a father/son, master/pupil relationship between Freud and Jung – something which events will ultimately undermine. The two confer over the case of a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrives at Jung’s clinic suffering from ‘hysteria’ but who will eventually become a leading psychoanalyst herself. Sabina is a historical figure who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

The film does seem to have provoked a very hostile reception from fans of Cronenberg’s earlier work in ‘body horror’ and from others with a strong interest in either Freud or Jung or both. As a squeamish film watcher I avoided Cronenberg’s earlier films and only began to be interested in his work at the time of Crash (1996). I was painfully aware of Freudian ideas when they were fashionable inside film studies in the 1980s and I’m aware of him as a historical figure but I’ve never read Freud and I know even less about Jung. I’m not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage in watching A Dangerous Method, but I think some of the criticism of the film that I’ve read is plain silly.

Here are just a few observations about the film narrative. The screenplay is by Christopher Hampton who wrote a play The Talking Cure first performed in 2003. There was also a book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method (1994) and various historical documents that also informed the screenplay. This review of Hampton’s play by the Guardian‘s Michael Billington is interesting in that I had the opposite response to that of Billington (an excellent critic) when I watched the film. I noticed, but didn’t think too much about, the points Billington makes as I was too busy enjoying the spectacle. Billington argues is that the play is about ideas but that an over-fussy set is distracting and that perhaps a film would be better. However I saw a film about characters in a particular historical context. Cronenberg creates a world of order in Vienna and Zürich. The sun is nearly always shining, the houses, rooms and, most of all, the formal gardens are beautifully designed, clean and sparkling. The clothes are exquisite (and Knightley and Fassbender wear them beautifully). The cinematography by Cronenberg’s long-term collaborator Peter Suschitzky uses the settings to create a composed world. The film deals with the period between 1904 and 1912 when the five great empires in Europe were at their height (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain). Only a few years later and the five would be at war and in Central Europe (apart from in Switzerland) the certainty of outlook and status of rich scientists like Jung (the money was from his wife’s family) would be severely questioned. The insights that Freud and Jung has into the psyche would become potentially even more important in the aftermath of the ‘Great War’.

Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross

(Some spoilers in this para)

The ideas in the film are about sexuality and mental health, about social status and about anti-semitism. Freud needed Jung because his Swiss Protestantism diluted the Jewish Austrian identity of the Viennese group of psychoanalysts. Freud was also disturbed by Jung’s class position and possibly felt undermined. He despaired when he learned of Jung’s interest in the possibilities of parapsychology, having hoped that Jung would help psychoanalysis achieve status as a scientific discipline. Hampton’s strategy in the screenplay is to explore these ideas first through Jung’s treatment of Sabina’s hysteria. Hysteria (literally a condition associated with the uterus) appears to have been a socially constructed ailment afflicting young middle class women whose sexuality was severely repressed in polite society. Sabina has to ‘face up’ to what has caused her physical ailment and she does so through the talking cure when she finally admits to Jung that she became sexually excited after being beaten by her father and felt a desire to masturbate. In order to represent the symptoms of hysteria Keira Knightley ‘gurns’ (pulls very exaggerated facial expression), squirms and shouts excitedly in a performance that some viewers have interpreted as ‘over the top’. As far as I can see Knightley and Cronenberg researched this and I think her performance is terrific. I think she is well-cast and certainly matches the two male leads. When Sabina asks Jung to spank her as the final act of her abreaction, the narrative leads us into a potential sexual relationship with Jung. He is in turn egged on by a provocative and dangerous psychotherapist, Otto Gross – played with enormous brio by Vincent Cassel. Gross is all in favour of therapists having sexual relationships with their patients and discovering more about human sexuality. Cassell reminded me of the figure of the satyr or the god Pan – all hair and testosterone. As an actor he has always reminded be of Michel Simon – this time perhaps as the tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning. Our interest in Jung’s possible infidelity also prompts us to think about Mrs Jung, seemingly always pregnant (and serene) played very well in such a difficult role by the young Canadian, Sarah Gadon. What we should also remember is that Otto was recommended to Jung (as a patient) by Freud and that Sabina will eventually move to Vienna when she has qualified as a psychoanalyst herself.

The film narrative is essentially about the triangle of Jung, Sabina and Freud, although Jung and Sabina are the main focus. I found the first 80-90% of this narrative fascinating but lost it in the final stretch. There is an interesting sequence on the liner taking Jung and Freud to New York – which tells us a great deal about the state of their relationship, but frustratingly little about why they were going to America and what happened when they got there. Otherwise, I think this is a great watch and I’ve praised many of the others so I should finish by congratulating Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as well. I’ve seen many reviews by disappointed Cronenberg fans who think that the film is ‘staid’, ‘conservative’ etc. but I think that they miss the point. Cronenberg, Suschitzky and production designer James McAteer have created a representation of a world of sexual repression and bourgeois respectability within which some intellectual breakthroughs are achieved through and perhaps in spite of some interesting personal relationships. Now, perhaps I should read that book on Jung and Film (Hauke and Alister 2001) that has remained unopened for so long? We’ll see.

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.