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Erica Abeel

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In Toronto, Storytelling Takes Center Stage

Posted: 09/11/11 06:04 PM ET

At near mid point, a couple of trends have emerged at the Toronto Film Festival. Filmmakers are returning to solid story telling, scripting shapely narratives with a satisfying payoff, while avoiding slick, Hollywood-style wrap-ups. Secondly, auteurs who usually work the dark side have gone more mainstream. Witness hell-raiser David Cronenberg with A Dangerous Method. And quirky Alexander Payne with the family-friendly The Descendants (more about Payne upcoming).

A Dangerous Method is a triumph of filmmaking, partly thanks to that master of screenwriting, Christopher Hampton. Drawn from historical fact, it's a fairly straightforward account of the turbulent triangle formed by fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the gifted but troubled patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who came between them. Cronenberg has managed the rare feat of dramatizing intellectual discovery, capturing the excitement and daring of two brilliant doctors as they pioneer the new field of psychoanalysis during a repressive era, and their respectful though competitive relationship.

Dangerous hits the ground running as Sabina, shrieking like a banshee, is carted off to Jung's elegant Swiss clinic. In a fascinating series of encounters, Jung gives his new "talking cure" a trial run, dragging from his patient the revelation that she was aroused by her father's childhood beatings. Sabina herself soon becomes a psychiatric student, her gifts and restless mind enabling her to break from the reigning patriarchy. Not too surprisingly, she also seduces the married Jung. Spankings figure heavily in their erotic repertoire, linking the film to Cronenberg's previous explorations of the marginal and perverse. Despite his passion for Sabina, Jung remains tied to conventional family and Victorian values. When the shattered Sabina continues her studies with Freud, in a potent scene the great man cites their bond as fellow Jews, adding that Jung displays an "Aryan" coldness. A series of time jumps takes the film to the brink of WWII.

The richly gifted Fassbender is steely, restrained, and flat-out magnificent as the ambitious Jung who places science and family before love. And as the cigar-smoking Freud, Mortensen -- sporting a nose prosthesis -- all but steals the picture with his knowing gaze and wry insights. In fact, his character injects an unexpected and delicious humor. This duo will surely be mentioned come Oscar time.

Knightley grows increasingly assured throughout the film, her emotionally volatile Sabina a foil for the doctors' poker-faced impassivity. Shot in locales around Switzerland and Vienna, the film is gorgeous, contrasting the light-filled lake country with Freud's faithfully reproduced Victorian study. Despite the film's talky approach, its intellectual breadth and kinky romance should cross over to general audiences. Though in the land of "You betcha," Cronenberg's mischievous assumption that S/M games are an acceptable feature of sexuality may not pass muster.