When thinking of Freud, one thing springs to mind – sex, and lots of it. But horror king David Cronenberg’s biopic of the famed psychoanalyst and his work with Carl Jung is hardly the raunchy tale of lust one might have imagined.
The film centres around Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient at the mental hospital where Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. Far from the prim and pouty Knightley we are used to seeing, her Spielrein is haunted and disturbing, grappling with her sadistic sexual desires and seeking solace in the words – and bed – of her doctor. Her affair with Jung quickly sours when his reputation gets tarnished by their dalliance, and she writes to his contemporary, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), asking if she may study alongside him.
The simmering tensions between Jung and Freud reach boiling point when Spielrein comes between them, distancing herself from her past as an institutionalised schizophrenic and proving to be an astute psychoanalyst. But Jung, encouraged by patient and fellow doctor Otto Gross (the inimitable Vincent Cassel), cannot shake his longing for Spielrein, and further abandons his former strict monogamy after she leaves the clinic. Freud cannot forgive Jung’s lack of professionalism towards his female patient, and their subsequent encounters are fraught.
Mortensen is superbly subtle as Freud, and Fassbender delivers an assured performance as the creator of ‘the talking cure.’ But whilst the performances are strong, the film as a whole is missing a certain spark. The stunning scenery does not compensate for the fact that the script simply does not translate well to the big screen, and would work far better in its original play format. There is much potential for greatness within its framework, but aside from Knightley’s disturbing facial expressions, the vast majority of the film is forgettable.