The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

How one overly pushed out jaw can break a whole movie

with 27 comments

So here’s a question: How much can the performance of one single actor affect how you feel about a movie? Can one bad apple drag down an entire film?

After watching A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, I’m leaning towards: “yes, it can”.

The film is based on a true story and tells about the first stumbling steps of psychoanalysis as a method to deal with mental illness and about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which grew increasingly worse over the years. The third main character is Sabina Spielrein, who comes to Jung as a patient, gets better by treatment, studies to become a psychiatrist herself, and for a while becomes a mistress of Jung.

Ridiculously overplayed
This would have been a pretty average, thoroughly made costume drama – surely historically correct, but maybe a tad boring and superficial – if it wasn’t for Keira Knightley in the role Ms Spielrein.

Her interpretation of what a mental patient looks like is so ridiculously overplayed that it gets an air of comedy.

You’re not supposed to giggle at serious matters like this, breaking the immersion for everyone else in the salon, and I didn’t. I swear, I did not (as little as I text messaged or munched on crunchy popcorn.)

But I really had to make an effort to keep the laughter inside me as I watched her push out her lower jaw yet another few inches. It looked so completely hilarious and a question came up in my head: I wonder if there had been some sort of CGI or other manipulation done to give her that weird, drawn out appearance?

I have to admit that I don’t know what a lunatic, psychotic person looks like in reality. I’ve never seen someone in that state of mind. But I honestly doubt that Keira Knightley has either. Rather than being pulled into the movie, believing that the woman I saw in front of me was Sabina Spielrein, I thought to myself: “So this is how Keira thinks that a crazy person looks like”.

The worst “raging like a crazy woman” scenes take place in the beginning. As it develops, Sabina gets a bit better. But instead of the craziness we get kinky sex, which also left me a bit baffled. I suppose some people will get a kick out of seeing Michael Fassbender spanking Keira Knightley dressed up in a corset, but frankly it neither looks hot, nor convincing. There’s no build-up, there’s no depth to the characters, nothing that explains to me why they end up in this situation or what’s going on in their minds. It’s almost as if those scenes were put into the movie as a tickling piece of decoration.

The positives
So isn’t there anything good to say about this film? We’re talking about Cronenberg here, a respected director as far as I know of.

Well, as I said, the costumes and settings are fine. And I generally like the concept, the idea to make a movie about the lives of Freud and Jung. It feels fairly fresh and interesting, worth some further exploration. Especially Freud is the one I’d like to learn more about. We get hints about the difficulties he faced as he introduced the psychoanalysis, one of them the fact that he was a Jew in a time when hostility against Jews was growing.

More time for Freud would also have given Viggo Mortensen more time on screen, which would be a good thing. He’s as wonderful as Knightley is awful. But unfortunately that isn’t enough to save A Dangerous Method from my sincere ridicule.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011) My rating: 2,5/5

Written by Jessica

November 23, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in A Dangerous Method

27 Responses

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  1. How disappointing! Cronenberg always seems to have something interesting to say – and he says it in interesting ways, but it seems this one failed – at least, for you. But if it failed for you because of KK, I suspect it will fail for me as well – I’ve long noted KK’s habit of shoving out her jaw, and I find it extremely annoying. As you say, it seems her go-to gesture for demonstrating what she’s feeling – and it begins to get in the way of the character because that frequent gestures feels like ACTING, not something natural.

    I suppose I’ll have to see it for myself, but I am not hopeful.

    Btw, do we both agree that KK is good in Never Let Me Go? She doesn’t really do the jaw thing there. I was so afraid she’d ruin that movie for me – but she really didn’t; I was plesantly surprised. Maybe she does better in a supporting role like that one.

    • She’s absolutely fine there and she was fine in Bend it like Beckham, which probably was the first movie I saw her in. I normally don’t have a problem with her. Just in this one. She did her jaw thing to the extreme. And even when she didn’t do it I now was so aware of her jaw that I couldn’t stop staring at it waiting for it to pop out again.


      November 23, 2011 at 7:53 am

      • I like her in Bend It Like Beckham, too (supporting role there!); I think I first noticed the jaw in Pride and Prejudice and couldn’t stop staring at it, wincing every time it popped out. (I wince, to be honest, at the entire movie, but that’s one of those I-adore-the-book-so-much-I-can’t-possibly-like-the-movie things.)

        • If you stared at the jaw in Pride and Prejudice you ain’t seen nothing yet. Consider yourself warned.


          November 23, 2011 at 9:04 am

  2. Hahahahahhahaa! Right on target Jessica!


    November 23, 2011 at 9:27 am

    • I think we were on the same page about this one Fiffi (even if you were kinder and gave it a 3/5 rating if I remember it correctly.)

      It’s interesting to see how split the critics are about this one. Half of them hated it and half of them thought it was great. I think it depends a lot on whether you think Keira is fina as crazy woman or not.


      November 23, 2011 at 9:30 am

  3. Don’t get me started on Knightley…..I am sorry but I can’t stand the woman.

    I am very disappointed here, as I thought it was going to be much better than this. I was very uch looking forward to seeing this one too. Ah well.

    Thanks Jessica

    Scott Lawlor

    November 23, 2011 at 9:41 am

    • I’m so sorry. 😦
      I got some very sad reactions at the Filmspotting forum as well. I feel like a jerk sharing this. But don’t give up. I really hope it will work better for you! I may be entirely wrong you know. There’s always hope!


      November 23, 2011 at 9:44 am

    • I like Knightley. She did some good movies: Never let me go, the duchess, atonement, pride & prejudice…


      November 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm

  4. From

    I understand intellectually why the performance is controversial, but I think it’s very wrongheaded. I think that people who have a problem think that at the beginning of the movie the character is over the top and they equate that with overacting. But Keira and I felt that we were doing a very subdued version of what hysteria was, and what Jung documented as her symptoms. To do it totally accurately would be unbearable to watch. We’ve seen film footage and stills from Charcot and others of what this was like.

    But how to manifest it was all from her. After three days of shooting we were five days ahead of schedule. I had allotted a lot of time for those early scenes because I didn‘t know what she would need. I hadn’t directed her before. And those extreme scenes were the first scenes we shot. But she was fantastic. She needed very few takes. We were all just awestruck.

    And what’s more, she was a delight. It wasn’t Method acting in the sense of “Don’t talk to me, I’m in my character.” She would laugh. Viggo and Michael are fun-loving guys, as is Vincent. We all are and she was right there with all that. But she would do these amazing things, which leads me to say that she’s among the best actresses I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with the best. That’s why it bugs me that some people say she’s overacting. She’s hysterical. It’s not just an expression. It meant something at the time, medically.



    November 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    • Wow, thank you! It really adds an interesting perspective to that performance. But I’m afraid it doesn’t change my first impression of it. I was about to burst into laughter as I saw her. It brought me out of the movie and set me completely wrong.

      It’s not the only problem I have with the movie either. The spanking felt out of the place. And I’m honestly not completely comfortable about how sexual abusing of children is related as something that gave her pleasure as a four year old. The message is a bit unclear to me.


      November 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      • It can’t alter your reaction, obviously, but I think it should change your view that “this is how Keira thinks that a crazy person looks like”. And that (as you imply) she’s got it terribly wrong.

        Clearly it’s what Cronenberg thinks someone diagnosed with hysteria in the early 1900s might look and behave – and it’s based on a decent amount of research including Jung’s actual notes made when she was first admitted. So, really, if this element demands scorn and criticism it should be directed towards the director. He’s stated in no uncertain terms that he got exactly what he wanted.
        But is it not possible that a completely accurate portrayal of what Spielrein was like when she first came to Jung’s clinic would still have left you with the same incredulous reaction?

        Where do you get sexual abuse of children? Sabina was hit by her father when she was a child (a historical fact afaik) and although it wouldn’t have been seen that way at the time it might well be called abuse today. But I don’t think there’s any suggestion at all that he ever abused her sexually.


        November 23, 2011 at 7:18 pm

        • Yes, you’re right that it’s definitely Cronenberg’s idea. And actually I should have recognized this in the first place. In the end, it’s the director who decides, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s the right decision to let Keira act that way since it’s obviously offputting for quite a few people, not in the way that they’re provoked, which can be a noble cause for a movie, but in the way that they’re disconnected from the movie and think it’s laughable. If that is the most common reaction, I think something isn’t working as it should. Byut you’re right: it’s Cronenberg we should blame, not Keira.

          As of the abuse: well… I guess strictly speaking it’s “only” child abuse, but since she talks about how it made her sexually aroused, that she looked forward to it etc, in that context it strikes me as an incestous relationship and sexual abuse of the worst kind and it’s not ever really called out for what it is, it rather comes out as pleasurable memories which she continues to live out with Jung. I think the impact is questionable.


          November 23, 2011 at 7:30 pm

          • oh and by the way: have you seen the movie yourself?


            November 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  5. Too bad, I usually like Cronenbergs work. Movies like the fly and existenz offer enjoyably weird experiences.


    November 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    • Don’t rule out that you may like this one. I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews about it as well. You might be on the side who loves it. While you and I often agree about movies, there need to be some exceptions, right?


      November 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      • I’ve just seen it and I expected more.

        I just didn’t feel a connection to the characters, worse, I disliked them. The main character is an adulterer who doesn’t feel much like anything about his relation with his patient. It doesn’t seem to make him happy nor does he show any remorse to his wife.

        Videodrome was more fun 🙂


        June 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        • Exactly my feelings! If there was anyone here I cared for it was his poor wife. Oh, and I didn’t mind Freud. I could have seen a movie just about him. But again: it lacks the originality and the imagination of Videodrome. This was just boring, badly made, unengaging costume drama. I wonder why he went that road.


          June 25, 2012 at 8:34 pm

          • And I usually like costume dramas. I’m surprised that Ebert gave this movie a 3.5/4, I usually agree with him.

            And yeah, it’s a movie I didn’t expect from Cronenberg.


            June 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  6. When I think of one single performance ruining a film, my thoughts immediately turn to Maria Pitillo playing the horrible Audrey in the ’97 remake of Godzilla. I know, I know, it’s not on the same level as the film you’re discussing here, but the point remains the same – a bad actor, or a bad performance, can ruin a film much more easily than any poor choice of scripting, plot device or other production element.

    Rodney Twelftree

    November 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    • To be fair, VoR has a point in the comments above. it’s wrong to only blame Keira K for the performance. Cronenberg has made those decisions deliberately. Nevertheless – for me it didn’t work.


      November 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  7. Good review. The performances are good, even though Knightley may be over-acting quite a bit, and it looks great, but the film also just feels like a series of vignettes with no real feeling or drama to it. Basically what I’m trying to say was that I was bored and this story just never really got off the ground. Check out my review when you get the chance.


    November 25, 2011 at 8:59 am

    • Thank you! Yes, I’m much on the same page as you, even if you are a bit kinder on Knightley. The story just didn’t grab me. It felt sort of superficial. I would have needed to come closer to someone. Jung, Jung’s wife (who is oddly anoymous), Freud or the mad woman. I guess it tried to tell too many stories at the same time and because of this pulled through none of them.


      November 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    • It’s a really fun read. I giggled at your discription of Frodo, it is FUN, even though I don’t agree. I’ve never seen him that way; as a matter of fact I adore those movies.
      But then I’m a Tolkien nerd, so I’m probably biased.


      November 26, 2011 at 12:19 am

  8. I thought this was going to be a post about Forrest Gump after reading the title…

    but Keira Knightley is just average. She was average in Never Let Me Go, she was (only) slightly above average in Last Night.


    November 26, 2011 at 1:20 am

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