Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let the teeth do the acting

Stress, early 20th-century style
 I don't remember whether it was on the commentary track or in a separate interview, but I remember Jeffrey Jones, commenting on his highly costumed and bewigged appearance in Sleepy Hollow, that he had decided to use an acting technique he had learned as the Emperor in Amadeus:  "Let the wig do the acting."  It was a joke, but his point was that, if you really look like you're from the 17th century, you don't have to "act" 17th century-ish.  The audience will have enough to go on to place you and you can go about your business creating the character.

And although two very fine actors, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen are portraying two titans in medical history, respectively Jung and Freud in the film A Dangerous Method (2011), they are all upstaged by Keira Knightley's teeth.  Actually, Ms. Knightley is quite upstaged by her own teeth.

Evidently the storm has passed.
In her defense, Ms. Knightley is re-enacting contemporary recountings of a female affliction called "hysteria," which means "my woman parts are making me crazy."  It's fairly unusual for an actor to have to conduct historical research to reproduce the systems of a disease.  And dis-ease -- lack of comfort in one's own skin -- is what it truly consists of.

As you might glean from these stills, her performance is not without risks.  As with any film directed by David Cronenberg, the entire film embraces risk; perhaps the greatest is that it makes the famous and once-controversial Freud a cautious, almost colorless character, and, most surprisingly, in the person of Viggo Mortensen, who gave Cronenberg such memorably dangerous performances in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, films which, if you have not seen them, I strongly urge you to seek out.  Knightley is the whole show here in one of the most theatrical, non-cinematic performances anyone has gotten away with in the last few years.  It is a little hard to believe that a young woman of her era could discuss her own sexual problems in such a calm and clinical way, but the indicators are that this is true and that the woman in question, Sabina Speilrein, was a successful pioneering therapist in her own right.

Speaking of theatrical, the film runs toward long takes of dialogue -- I can't think of a Cronenberg film with so little overt physical action.  But it is hardly surprising as the screenwriter is the playwright Christopher Hampton, one of the wordiest of wordsmiths, given to adaptations and therefore has a bit of the pedant built into his writing as a matter of course; moreover the script was from a play adapted from a script.  No matter how you dress it up, this is a movie about people talking in rooms.

Except when they're spanking each other, which is probably why this film didn't attract the Merchant-Ivory fan base for very polite historical psychological drama.  It's neither completely genteel nor utterly grotesque like a film by Peter Greenaway.  Too dull for the shock fans, too raw for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd.

But if this is a harbinger of things to come from Ms. Knightley, who seems to have been justified in leaving the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, her future looks not only interesting, but rather brave.

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