Slap and tickle's never seemed so dull as in A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (15)

Verdict: Ambitious but unsatisfying

Here’s a three-cornered relationship drama with a difference. Carl (Michael Fassbender) is a stiff, upright Swiss Protestant with a pretty, permanently pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon).

He’s tempted into adultery by Sabina (Keira Knightley), a young woman he meets professionally, and whom he helps with her career in the same line as himself.

But she is vengeful when he dumps her, and tempted by the ideas of Carl’s professional rival, Sigmund (Viggo Mortensen), who lures her away to help him with his work in Vienna.

Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method

Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method

If you haven’t guessed by now, Carl is Carl Jung, Sigmund is Sigmund Freud, and Sabina is Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish sado-masochist.

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director David Cronenberg are coy about whether Jung derived sexual pleasure from beating her, and about whether she was ever ‘cured’ of her feelings of shame, or desire to be humiliated.

The male performances are watchable. Mortensen and Fassbender make spiky sparring partners. In the most eye-catching role, Knightley is convincingly hysterical, highly strung and intelligent.

The central joke is that Jung doesn’t believe in Freud’s theory that the sexual impulse is the main catalyst of human behaviour, or in the hedonistic view of fellow-psychiatrist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), that the best way to deal with temptation is to yield to it — and that Jung is comically out of touch with his own sexual impulses.

Yet the film feels mistimed in being resolutely Freudian at a time when Freud’s ideas and methods are being challenged. And, more importantly, it simply isn’t sufficiently cinematic.

It’s as verbose as a stage play, and as literary as a novel. It lacks a sense of danger. Jung never seems about to turn his back on his marriage. Sabina never looks as if she will get her man.

Even if you know nothing about psychoanalysis, it’s clear that Freud and Jung are never going to bridge the ideological gulf between them.

The last nail in the coffin is that the pace is slow, and much of the talk turgid.

A good deal of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that it’s hard to swallow the idea that these are exceptionally intelligent people; they feel like characters from a soap opera with ideas above its station.