Keira Knightley is one of the more widely disliked young actresses working today, I suspect due equally to the fact that she is stunningly attractive and that she has tended to play a similar kind of superior, posh English person. I have never shared this particular prejudice - I think she’s quite charming in the first Pirates of the Caribbean and very good in Atonement and Never Let Me Go - but I never gave her quite the credence I have given to the likes of, say, Carey Mulligan, whose prodigious talent and range has been evident even from her still-short resume. Keira Knightley does a thing with her lips, a kind of sneer, that is very convincing and also not the kind of thing that people who are not superior English sorts of people do. She simply never seemed to have the kind of chameleonic quality of, say, a Ryan Gosling, a Michael Fassbender, a Nicole Kidman. There was something consistently recognizable about her.
A Dangerous Method is a game-changer in Knightley’s career. Her performance as Sabina Spielrein, the young woman who began as a patient of Carl Jung’s, became his mistress, and wound up conferring with Freud on her own psychoanalytic work, is a revelation. Gone are any and all traces of those familiar characters and mannerisms. Sabina is not an elevated character but one who, having been literally dragged through the mud, is altogether too real - or would be if she were not so utterly captivating, and ultimately winning. (Kartina Richardson has written a brilliant piece on the subject of Knightley’s, and by extension Sabina’s, sexuality at the New Inquiry.) The strength of Knightley’s performance comes through not only in the scenes depicting Sabina’s psychotic breakdown and recovery but also in the calmer moments that come later in the film, when she has a better grasp of herself and her milieu. That is, she is a very different person than the Knightley we have seen before not just when she is forcing her jaw out, but indeed when she is simply watching Jung speak. We get the strong sense of the myriad thoughts going through her head - and also the feeling that those thoughts are fascinating.
A Dangerous Method is a deeply problematic film. Though Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud is an utter delight, Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a flat cipher, underwritten and consequently underperformed. The Jung described in John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method, upon which the play and then screenplay of A Dangerous Method were based, reveals a far more complicated and interesting figure than the version who made it to the screen. We have little access to his emotional state throughout the film and so a late expression of anguish feels disingenuous. The screenplay, which begins with great promise, peters out in its last act. And yet, in spite of all this, I enjoyed the film enormously. I liked it very much, possibly more than it deserved. Sabina Spielrein was a fascinating woman, and the character has the benefit of being the only one of the three of them who seems to be ascending as the film ends. Though they would both live longer than she, Jung and Freud seem to be falling, both professionally and personally, into the deep pits of their own terrors; it is Sabina who has overcome her demons (well enough, anyway). The shrieking creature of the film’s beginning is long gone, and in her place we find a self-possessed, intelligent, ambitious woman. It is to Knightley’s credit that no beat of this journey feels false, and that she manages to portray a woman with such a particular, unique inner force so convincingly. Hers is my favorite female performance of the year.