Friday, January 6, 2012

A Dangerous Method and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

               Playin' Those Mind Games Forever ... 
               But Good Luck Trying to Analyze Them
                              Review by Ken Burke

                                            A Dangerous Method
Freud and Jung clash with each other over psychoanalytical method and Jung’s desire to extend talk into action with a patient/lover/colleague in this drama from old Vienna.

                                            Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An adaptation of the famous John le Carré spy novel, this complex story of Cold War double-agent treachery is hard to follow but satisfyingly intriguing to watch.
            As I move further into 2012, catching up on the prestige releases from late 2011, I’ve decided to do another combo review although linking up A Dangerous Method and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy won’t be nearly as obvious nor easy as was combining the slam-bang action movies Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: impossible—Ghost Protocol.  I’d like to say that I chose the current combination because they better represent explorations of the adult mental mysteries that I found lacking in Sherlock Holmes 2, but I have to admit that the idea may simply have come subliminally from seeing other reviews of these two films side-by-side in the 12/16/2011 San Francisco Chronicle (p. E7) or just seeing them advertised side-by-side in the current flier for Landmark Theatres films in Berkeley this January.  But, in an attempt to maintain the illusion that film critics actually know what they’re talking about (and even why they’re talking) I’ll go with the “adult mental mysteries” concept because I think these films do have relevance for those who want to ponder what they’re watching rather than just fly along on an extended ride with The Adventures of Tintin … but the real mental mystery may just be in my convoluted thinking so let’s just see what comes of this as we go along.

            I’ll take these two films in chronological order of when they’re set, so we’ll start in early 20th century central Europe with A Dangerous Method.  Director David Cronenberg has found a way to make history come alive (not always an easy task; ask my wife whose schooling bored her with constant battle results and distracted her with teachers who rambled on about sports trivia) regarding the early titans of psychoanalysis, authoritarian Austrian Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and conflicted Swiss Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender)—along with their patient-turned-lover-turned colleague, sensuous Russian Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).  According to screenwriter Christopher Hampton what we get in this account of science and sin colliding at the birth of “the talking cure” process is well grounded in fact (see the second A Dangerous Mind video clip noted below, a detailed interview with Hampton) so you can learn a lot from this film, even though it’s likely been dramatized to streamline it more into a compelling narrative than just a steamy case study (although plenty of steam remains, possibly enough to entice the standard Cineplex-goer to see these heady intellectuals as human animals who’re concerned with more than one definition of “head”).  Still, this is not a sex film, despite its R rating and the frequent discussions of sex among the three leads, any more than Steve McQueen’s Shame (also starring Fassbender) is a sex film, despite its graphic portrayals and off-putting NC-17 rating.  Both of these current works are quite serious in their concepts, including showing how intercourse can be a destructive, consuming passion rather than just a pleasurable human encounter or act of bonding between two intrigued individuals.

            In fact, bonding might have given way to bondage as the next step for seemingly reserved Jung and neurotic-turned-passionate Spielrein as their therapy methods becomes quite dangerous, especially as a threat to the stability of Jung’s marriage and career as he and Sabina find that the most effective liberation from the hysteria caused by the memory of her physically abusive father is to accept the masochistic pleasure she finally admits she felt from his beatings and use that as exciting foreplay for her passionate couplings with the confused but all-too-willing Dr. Jung. To employ his later terms, her aroused inner masculine animus allows her lust to be unleashed, to the point of becoming stereotypically male in her aggressive insistence on continuing the affair—as with Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)—just as Jung’s straying from a stable but rather lifeless marriage stirs in him not only erotic pleasure in Sabina’s responses to his mild S & M advances but also stereotypically inner female anima where he sees himself as the victim of her lust and a guilt-ridden charlatan in his emerging psychoanalytical profession (certainly he’s more troubled than Michael Douglas’ Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction who never really shows much remorse about his unmotivated straying from wife and child, just fear for them and himself when Alex—who could use a big dose of analysis herself—turns homicidal toward him and his family).  Unlike Alex’s bloody end, Sabina finds a sense of stability in her troubled life, despite her conflicts with Carl, as she eventually becomes a therapist herself, then marries and is with child in the final scene where Jung’s wife (who now knows of their affair) begs Spielrein to use her combination of intimacy and professional skills to bring Carl out of the depression which would consume him throughout the coming years of World War I.  Sabina’s really not resolved enough in her own traumas to do this, though, so both of them end the film on a troubled note, with greater tragedy to come for her and her children during the Second World War when as Soviet Jews back in Russia they’re killed by invading Nazis.

          Nazis will eventually disrupt Freud as well, driving him from Vienna to London after their annexation of Austria.  In our film, though, he’s never undone by anything except his anger at Jung for the affair with Spielrein and the subsequent dissolution of their working camaraderie over both Jung’s breach of professional ethnics (despite his attempt to categorize Sabina as a non-patient because he hadn’t been charging her—which angers her, resulting in her slapping money down on his desk, but she, and we, could also interpret this as prostitute wages by this point; Jung initially denies the affair to Freud which also fuels the anger and guilt dynamic between them) and his insistence on exploring what Freud saw as the delusional mysticism of mythology and the paranormal rather than the “pure science” advocated by the cigarmeister of sexual motivations.  Ironically, Freud’s determination that every human action, desire, and repression is grounded in a desperate need for sex (or avoidance of it) has led to his reduced reputation among many contemporary psychologists and scientists (although few but the most religious among us deny the biological power of innate sexual desire simply as the necessary impetus for species perpetuation, no matter what the species). 

            Nevertheless, in A Dangerous Method Freud’s focus on sexual explanations for mental disturbance, along with his analysis of the dreams that represent our repressed desires and fears in a symbolic manner, leads him to ironically embrace both the role of rigid father figure (who won’t reveal his own dreams to Jung in order to preserve his authoritarian role) and pseudo-religious “high priest” of the “new revelation.”  This provides for an interesting, provocative take on a man who offered challenging concepts about the workings of the mysterious human mind, even when he loses a clear view of what he’s dealing with and what further developments are needed to refine his insights into the fundamental nature of human needs.  In fact, it’s Sabina who clarifies for him the connection between sex and death, that in order to fully engage in our underlying animal urges and the creativity that they liberate we must be willing to sacrifice socially-mandated restraint and decorum in order to fully immerse ourselves in our desired pleasure principle, a loss of control that can also literally or symbolically conjure up destruction or death—at least the death of repression and sublimation, as exemplified in this film by the satisfied hedonism of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), another medical colleague of Freud’s who refused to resist any sensual temptation.  (I can’t speak for early 1900s Europe, but in my experience academia isn’t the lust fest depicted in this film, or maybe I’ve just chosen the wrong discipline; but if the psychoanalytical field is so fertile—so to speak—I’m not sure why so many contemporary psychologists have turned away from Freud, or maybe it just all had to do with the erotic motions of the Danube flowing through old Vienna, although the river didn’t look very blue or enrapturing when I saw it there a few years ago.)

            All in all, A Dangerous Method is for me a very thought-provoking film which it should be, given its focus on human thought, sexually-motivated or not. I’d expect such from Cronenberg, whose interests in cinematic intensity and psychological disturbance have been demonstrated admirably in his past work, including Eastern Promises (2007), A History of Violence (2005—both with Mortensen, also of Lord of the Rings fame as long-lost king Aragorn)eXistenZ (1999), Crash (1996), Naked Lunch (1991), and The Fly (1986), although he has earlier, more disturbing work that I’m sure some others prefer even more.  Cinematically, we’re given impressive, quiet landscapes contrasted against these agitated protagonists, along with a well-crafted pace of intertwinement among the three principals—especially in a montage of letter exchanges dealing with Spielrein’s insistence on Freud becoming her analyst and Jung’s denial/admission of the affair.  Freud’s idea about the human preoccupation with intercourse is shown to be unnecessarily rigid (careful, I’m getting into the area of Shame-less puns again) and his self-image to be dangerous in its own right due to his determination to dominate his new mental health procedure.  Jung’s simultaneous delight and despair with his newly-found immersion into a sexual union beyond the genteel interactions he has with his rich, cultured, reserved wife (who especially withdraws from him after the birth of their first daughter, possibly because she feels some socially-imposed shame at not having delivered a son) show us that all the study and intellectualization in the world can’t overcome repressed desires (which seems to verify Freud’s position, if not the imposing way in which he presents it, in a persuasive manner that gives Jung more fits because he sees persuasion as another demonic drug he desperately wants to resist). 

            Ultimately the conflict between Freud and Jung comes down to a difference in desire, not for sexual satisfaction but for the future of psychoanalysis.  Freud essentially sees life as inherently repressive so he wants to help his patients recognize this and accommodate themselves to the difficulties we must all inevitably face.  Jung wants something more radical, a cure for his patients so that they can enjoy their lives, possibly in a manner he has yet to find for himself.  We could speculate on which of their perspectives better describes Spielrein’s transformation from a traumatized Ophelia just looking for a river to drown in to a respected member of the medical establishment, yet one who continues to repress her own erotic desires that were unleashed with Jung.  Whether you see her as accommodated to her restrictions or liberated from them (but in a melancholy manner) shows us the complexity that inhabits (and at times inhibits) all of us and reminds us that words such as “schizophrenia,” “suicide,” or just “issues” are part of the larger context of being a human being, not an end-all categorization.  I found the acting in this film to be uniformly strong, which I expected with Fassbender and Mortensen but was a bit surprised to see from Knightley whose previous appearances in roles such as Natalie Portman lookalike in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and love interest in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (Gore Verbinski, 2003, 2005, 2006) hadn’t shown me the range she exhibits in this film (although, to be fair, others may have seen that and appreciated her more in roles such as Guinevere in King Arthur [Antoine Fuqua, 2004], Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice [Joe Wright, 2005], or Cecilia Tallis in Atonement [Joe Wright, 2007]).

            Conversely, I’d never be surprised at quality acting coming from Gary Oldman—whom I hope to see as a Best Actor Oscar contender—especially as he brings his own marvelous sense of subdued decorum (more appealing that with Jung's wife, Emma [Sarah Gadon]) to the secret agent role of George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson‘s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the long-respected novel by John le Carré.  Honestly, though, I’d recommend reading the novel before attempting to follow the plot strands of this film or at least consult a detailed summary such as what you’d find at before entering the theatre. 

            I’ve seen speculation about this film as also a nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay—and for some viewers, especially ones who do bring a familiarity with the book to the encounter, maybe that’s the case—but I think that an award-winning script shouldn’t leave me so confused as to what’s going on, who’s doing what to whom, how does what I’m watching now relate to what’s gone before, and, fundamentally, who is that person and what does he or she have to do with all of this?  I’m quite willing to have the film as a whole leave me with those questions, as long as I find something useful in pondering the answers to them (as did Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and this year’s The Tree of Life from Terrence Malick, the former an all-time classic and the latter one of my 2011 Top Ten), but in my opinionated opinion the script itself should be airtight and captivating in what it presents, even if that presentation is calculated ambiguity.  Here the story as presented just constantly confounds me with bits of plot activities both in the present of a now-compromised British intelligence cadre (internally referred to as the Circus) and flashbacks into their past (I took about a tenth of the notes that I usually do when watching a film for review purposes because I finally just gave up and tried to follow what I could from one action to the next), snatches of dialogue about events well known to the characters but hard for me to place in context, and a climax/explanation that I perceive as coming too quickly as well as not clarifying much to me about the motivations of the unit’s mole, who is finally revealed as Bill Haydon (marvelously well-played by Colin Firth, himself a possible candidate for Oscar’s Best Supporting Actor).
            Important interruption of this fascinating review!  If you’re upset that I’ve given away the whole point of the film’s mystery, I’ll cordially direct you to our blog home page ( see December 2011 listings for ABOUT THE BLOG) where you’re forewarned that this will inevitably be part of these after-opening-weekend analytical reviews/essays; sorry if that’s a problem, but we need to write it as we see it, not as it needs to be concealed from you in order to persuade you to buy a ticket.  (Although we may not be nearly as persuasive as Freud was to Jung ... but you can't resist us anyway, can you?  We thought not.)  OK, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

            Yet, although my reaction upon completion of my one viewing of the film included a sense of profound confusion (I’ll admit, a second screening would help, but time and money being what they are that’s not as likely as I’d prefer, although if I do see it again I’d like to try another theatre and see if the soundtrack really is as soft as I experienced it—which, if so, doesn’t help comprehension of the plot either—or if the projectionist just has more acute hearing than I do and didn’t feel the need to crank it up any further—a possible option, given my age-battered years) that confusion was greatly tempered by respect for the intriguing, well-acted story that I had encountered, although somewhat more from afar than I’d usually prefer.  There’s something fascinating and mesmerizing about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy even when I don’t fully know what the hell is going on.  What I do (think I) know is that the success of Tinker Tailor… lies in getting us into the minds of espionage specialists, with all of their intra-agency interconnections and rivalries along with the inter-agency shams and scams with their Russian counterparts in the bygone 1973-'74 heyday (and earlier in the numerous flashbacks) of the unlamented Cold War (although anyone who thinks we’re not still spying on the Russians—and everyone else—with likewise responses from our allies and enemies hasn’t read a newspaper or magazine or attended to a news broadcast since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall).  Maybe by not really knowing much about these guys (and the few women who occasionally, even tragically, come into our view) we can appreciate better how they experience their tangled lives of lies, plots, and complex procedures, never knowing how accurate their information is from double-agents of the other side let alone not knowing who you can trust in your own organization.  Besides, this explanation ties in with my initial premise of adult-level mind-game movies, so I’d better stick with it if I hope to have more continuity than what I think I got from Alfredson’s version of le Carré’s complex spy story.

            In addition to Oldman’s masterful lead, thanks to the frequent flashbacks we get to see quite a bit of the former Circus head, Control (John Hurt), a caustic but enjoyable character who dies soon after a botched operation in Budapest results in his detachment from the unit.  Control is the type of leader you’d assume you’d want in command of this pressurized environment, in that he's able to cut through the crap that convolutes and sometimes confuses his high-ranking underlings, but unfortunately for his agents and the clarity of the film’s narrative intentions he’s soon gone, taking his reserved but effective lieutenant, Smiley, with him into forced retirement (I should be so lucky, even without a shootout in Hungary).  Smiley never gets a chance to develop a taste for afternoon tea and gardening, though, because he’s soon pulled back into action by a top government official to investigate rumors of an embedded Soviet mole within the upper echelon of the Circus.  Control was onto this already—that’s why agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) was in Budapest in the first place, to meet with an informant willing to identify the traitor before the whole thing went bad and Prideaux was presumably killed, although not much of anything you see in this film should be taken at face value.  In one of our helpful flashbacks (as opposed to the ones that seem to follow some action that you think you should have been in your seat an hour earlier to understand, even though you’ve been there from the opening credits), Control gives us a murky explanation at some point well into the film (it all rapidly became a blur for me after the theatre lights came back up and the projectionist explained where I could get an assisted listening device for next time) about how he nicknamed the four top tier Circus guys, not counting Smiley whom we presume has always been above suspicion, as “Tinker,” “Tailor,” etc., so it becomes a guessing game with few clues for us to try to figure out which of the big four has gone rogue.

            Now let me take a moment for another interruption.  (Hey, the film was confusing; why shouldn’t the review be as well?)  One interesting consideration for a 2012 audience is how anything was ever discovered on either side in these primitive days of espionage, as indicated by the photo on the right of the Circus headquarters.  With our contemporary expectations of computer-based technologies that can locate and analyze the brand name on a toothpaste tube from 10,000 miles away it’s hard to believe that the former tools of the trade were based on such limited items as typewriters and audiotape recorders (that’s why the bicycle looks so appropriate to me in this context where spy work is a difficult and tedious business without the slick gadgets and high-speed car chases already popularized in James Bond movie adaptations of Ian Fleming's more flamboyant spy novels for a decade before Tinker Tailor is set). 

            OK, back to the spy vs. spy mystery.  Based mostly on personality, one might hope that the mole is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) who’s eager to become the new team leader as he constantly prides himself on his secret dealings, code named Operation Witchcraft, with Russian agent Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy) with which he hopes to impress his counterparts in the CIA, thereby getting access to desired American intel as well.  His motivations may be proper for his profession, but his irritating, lordly attitude would make him an easy villain—if this were an easy spy story, but, obviously, it’s not, as we find ourselves with problems and deceptions everywhere from grey London to sunny Istanbul where we get more agents and counteragents, as well as forbidden love, to content with.  Forbidden love is in vogue back home as well, as Smiley’s wife is having an affair with Haydon, the “Tailor” of Control’s prime suspects and the ultimate fallen king of this convoluted chess game when the plot finally jerks into a resolution; Haydon, in what may be one of the strangest excuses ever heard on screen for extramarital sex, “consoles” Smiley toward the end with an admission that the affair was just part of his cover story, not true attraction for the wife.  (A revelation that reminds me of the dialogue between Benjamin Braddock [Dustin Hoffman] and Mr. Robinson [Murray Hamilton] in The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967], which went something like:  “What happened between me and Mrs. Robinson meant nothing.  We might as well have been shaking hands.”  “Shaking hands!  Well, that doesn’t say much about my wife, does it? … [leaving] “Excuse me if I don’t shake hands with you!”)  Haydon may have been a horrible citizen but he certainly seems to (somewhat) appreciate the value of the sanctity of marriage (how noble of him); in true stiff-upper-lip dutiful British fashion he probably never even smiled while he was bedding Ann Smiley (Katrina Vasilieva).

            George may have been upset by the betrayals of his spouse and former ally, but he’s too much of a professional to extract any revenge, although wounded-but-recovered agent Prideaux does settle the score by killing Haydon, just as we think that it’s all been wrapped up, in a manner somewhat similar to another, even more complex moles-in-the-system film (but, oddly, one whose events were much easier to comprehend), Martin Scorsese’s 2006 The Departed (but that was based on a Hong Kong movie [Andrew Lau and Alan Mak‘s 2002 Infernal Affairs] so I won’t suggest that he borrowed from Tinker Tailor although he does convey le Carré's original 1974 sense of the anger, tension, and difficulties involved for all when betrayal by trusted comrades leads to chaos within any organization, an attitude that can now be appreciated in direct connection with le Carré's narrative in the new film although some viewers may also be familiar with the BBC 1979 Tinker Tailor mini-series starring Alec Guinness).  With all the turmoil finally under control, George is now free to return to the Circus as its new head, a role seemingly destined for him before all of those confusing complications got in the way.  As the film concludes, we leave him in his brightly colored conference room where the illumination may shine a little light on the ongoing mind games that he must master (just like Freud, Jung, and Spielrein before him), also symbolized by the checker—or chess—board pattern on his walls. 

All of the protagonists in these two films are constantly dealing with the mental strategies of their swirling minds and those of the important others who impact them.  It’s a constant problem for the psychoanalysis pioneers to defend the legitimacy of their emerging profession, even as they struggle with the impact of sexual desire in their own lives.  It’s an equally constant struggle for Smiley’s spies to ferret out what must be known about their enemies in order for their society to survive equal subterfuge from the opposition.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be a lot harder to keep up with than A Dangerous Method, but they both are fascinating films to watch as the former shows us the ambiguously disturbing netherworlds of our supposedly stable societies just as the latter shows us the more directly disturbing subconscious worlds of our supposedly stable selves.  Neither of these films is big fun to sit through, but I find them well worth the time invested for the lingering effects they subtly deliver.

            (January 9, 2012   As fate—and an available bargain matinee—would have it, I did see Tinker Tailor again, just a few days after I posted the above review [Once again proving that I’ll spare no effort to give my readers—all four of you, apparently, at least at this point—the full film explorations that you deserve; please keep the trophies, though, and just send your tributes in cash ... or, preferably, gold nuggets].  To paraphrase Martin Short’s long-ago Ed Grimley character on Saturday Night Live, “I must say” that the plotline is much more understandable after a second viewing and a couple of refresher trips to the film’s  synopsis noted far above in the review.  For me there are still some unexplained diversions that get an audience unnecessarily off track, but when you have a more solid understanding of how most of the major events hold together you can really appreciate how director Alfredson has precisely constructed a complex tale that captures the confusion and uncertainty of the spy business, even though I still fault the script, or at least the final cut editing—especially for first-time audiences not familiar with the novel or an Internet cheat sheet—for jumping too frequently among a lot of minor characters who are barely identifiable at times and are involved in activities that may provide distractions rather than enhancements to the main mole story.  At best, what seems to be happening here [honesty update: I haven't read the le Carré version; after all, I've only had about 40 years to do so] is that the usual long novel into standard-length film compression, which forcibly eliminates much of the book, has retained in this case some of a novel’s complexity with hints of all the minor scenes and characters that make an extended reading such a pleasurable experience.  This literary complexity is at least alluded to with all of the brief inclusions that may be more distracting than intended for some but can hopefully give a sense of the expansive experience available in the written text.

All in all, though, I still find the level of plot intrigue to be fascinating [much more so than what you get in the overly active Sherlock Holmes 2], the acting to be uniformly superior, the cinematography and soundtrack to be great enhancements to the total experience, and the overall interaction of various locations, narrative threads, and time periods to be mesmerizing.  I haven’t finalized my 2011 Top Ten yet [a few of the possible contenders still aren’t available in my area for the non-preview-screening viewer], but I’m now of the opinion that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should be within that winners’ circle.  Given that, why only 3 ½ stars?  First, I can’t overlook what I see to be an unnecessarily distracting script structure at times and, second, please remember that for me the standard top-quality release gets only 4 stars [I reserve 5 for the memorably superb ones of Citizen Kane and The Godfather quality] so a few of my annual Top Ten’s will end up with only 3 ½ stars, which is not intended as a backhanded compliment to these still notable films.

            And one more thing: This second screening had a much more listenable soundtrack in a different theatre, making my first experience compromised by the projectionist’s decision rather than the film’s audio team.  So, if you find yourself straining to follow the flow of the dialogue—and the British accents here aren’t the type that require subtitles—ask your theatre crew to pump it up a bit even if you're not decibel-challenged like I am; I guarantee that for the first go-round you’re going to need all the help you can get.  But once you’ve gotten a full [or at least fuller] taste of what Alfredson and company are up to I think you’ll really be able to appreciate what’s been accomplished with this film.  It’s just a shame that you need to do so much preparation to be able to absorb its success with only a single viewing.)

If you’re interested in exploring more about A Dangerous Method here are some suggested links:

And if the beginning history lesson you get about Freud, Jung, and Spielrein intrigues you maybe you’d like to follow up with these links:

If you’re interested in exploring more about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy here are some recommended links: (yes, the audio is low but it gives you a good sense of the visual attitude of the film)

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