What is immediately obvious, during David Cronenberg’s latest Period set, Psycho-sexual three-piece drama, is the astoundingly provocative and not completely successful Keira Knightly performance. As one of the three central characters occupying the screen for the majority of this 100 minute exploration of the well known rivalry and frustration between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Knightly’s orgasmic cries and jutting, angle-fish jawline distract rather than immerse the audience, creating an uncomfortably laughable presence in an otherwise stoic and po-faced literary adaptation.
Indeed, in every one of her scenes she is seen to be desperately straddling the line between unintentionally comic and intensely manic, with early interviews between the Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Knightly’s severely traumatised Sabina Spielrein, threatening to escalate into uncontrollable farce, her unnerving performance, continually thrust forward at any sign of her childhood traumas, provoking a smattering of uncertain giggles, that only progressed into all-out knee-slapping guffaws at the modestly attended screening your humble reviewer convened. Of course, ultimately one must attempt to get past this jutting extremity and engage with the other facets of the performance, but then again, Knightly doesn’t quite hold up in these departments either. The choices inevitably come down to Cronenberg himself, whose decision to allow Viggo Mortensen, a Danish/American actor, to play the very Austrian Sigmund Freud as British, to allow Michael Fassbender, a German/Irish actor, to play the Swiss Dr. Carl Jung as British, whilst inexplicably having Keira Knightly, incidentally the only British actor actually involved in this production, struggle painfully with a particularly tricky Russian accent, is puzzling to say the least.
Above and beyond the miscast Keira Knightly, the general direction and cinematography are reliably assured, the period details nicely observed and the performances of Fassbender and Mortensen, utterly superb. The script, however, is unfortunately much less convincing. Early exchanges between Jung and his rather fertile wife are gratingly false, laden with exposition and often laughably sincere. The only regular reprieve from clumsy dialogue and melodrama comes in the form of Jung and Freud’s rivalry, the former played with frustrated earnestness by the seemingly flawless Fassbender, the latter with stolid arrogance and delightfully dry humour by method-actor Mortensen, which begs the question, why weren’t these exchanges kept central to the plot? They emerge late-on and are further intensified by the arrival of the wonderful Vincent Cassell, whose roguish performance as the sociopathic nymphomaniac Otto Gross, more than lives up to the promise of his characters surname and inflects a much needed light-heartedness to proceedings.
Ultimately, the overshadowed strengths of this production lie in two incredibly assured performances and an endlessly interesting true-story of rivalry and misunderstandings between two great Psychoanalysts, though having endured what felt like a gruelling cinematic journey, one is left with the overall impression that they have just been spanked furiously for two hours by Cronenberg’s rough palm, though, unlike Knightly's character, without the compensation of a trauma-induced orgasm.
A slight return from Cronenberg, whose previous two releases have heralded a masterful new direction for the once master of body-horror creepiness. Two superb performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen can’t atone for the clumsy script, a poorly cast Keira Knightly and a general lack of ambition. All in all - a wasted opportunity.