I almost spat Coke into my popcorn when I saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method. Biopic? check. Costume drama? Check. “A Film by DAVID CRONENBERG,” huh? I knew Viggo Mortensen’s main man had a new film coming out, but a Knightley-Fassbender period romance was hardly what I expected. It’s not that the subject matter — Freud, Jung, and the birth of psychoanalysis — is a bad match. More like a redundancy. Cronenberg’s body of work can already be partly understood as a compendium of his feelings on Freud and a century of psychoanalytic thought. What’s to be gained from a straight take on material that he’s twisted and transformed, so imaginatively and elegantly, time and again? I know it’s obnoxious for a critic to insist that a movie should be something it isn’t, but I can’t fight the feeling. The English major in me is impressed by the intellectual ambition and writerly craft that went into this careful portrait of Jung, Freud, and their lesser-known sidekick Sabina Spielrein. It catches in the periphery of its gaze the plight of the Jews, the tragedy of the World Wars, and something about the mood of the 20th century. But it’s more educational than compelling. The cinephile in me longs for a real Cronenberg screenplay, which might have made something odd and truly majestic out of this historical triangle.
Notably only for a first act that credibly depicts a three-way — and, eventually, four-way — relationship among friends and lovers without tilting embarrassingly toward titillation and/or soap opera, the blandly titled The Edge of Love is only incidentally a Dylan Thomas biopic. Welshman Matthew Rhys (currently on American television in Brothers & Sisters) plays the poet, and although the film draws on Thomas’ writings in voiceover (some of them the famous archival recordings in the poet’s own voice), he’s never the center of the drama. The film opens close in on a shot of Keira Knightley, playing Vera Phillips, a singer in a London nightclub during World War II. She meets Thomas, apparently an old childhood friend, and is charmed — but surprised when the poet’s wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), arrives on the scene. The three of them — starving artist, wife and, perhaps, muse — move in under one roof. Vera also catches the eye of William Killick (Cillian Murphy), a good-looking but perhaps too earnest solider who’s preparing to return to the front lines, and would like to take a wife before he goes back. She agrees, which makes Killick forever a member of this dysfunctional group.
Half of Atonement is a great tragic romance set on a sizable English estate on the eve of World War II. Poor little rich girl Cecilia Tannis (Keira Knightley, lean of body and full of lip) briefly consummates a love affair with sweet-faced son-of-a-groundskeeper Robbie Turner (James McAvoy, coming on as a cross between Brendan Fraser and a more boyish Russell Crowe) as Briony, Cecilia’s teenaged sister (Saoirse Ronan, with pinched, choirgirlesque good looks) watches, appalled and uncomprehending. The other half of Atonement comprises a highly routine men-at-war effort that follows a trio of soldiers trying to make their way out of occupied France during the Dunkirk evacuation as well as narrative bits showing the Tallis sisters (Briony is now played by Romola Garai), now nurses, tending to wounded soldiers.