Hollywood has tried for decades to make psychoanalysis compelling for the layman, whether that’s David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” to Bill Condon’s “Kinsey.” Director Matthew Brown (“The Man Who Knew Infinity”) is the latest to look at the density of psychology, philosophy and existentialism with his quasi-historical drama “Freud’s Last Session.”
The film tells the story of a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and author C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode). Freud is suffering from oral cancer while Lewis has embraced a newfound love for Christianity. The pair meet in the hopes of crafting some type of relationship and spend the day going back and forth on the everything from God to the meaning of life.
It’s a fairly simple premise that holds promise: what would the greatest psychoanalyst and the most pronounced theologian have to talk about? The answer is enough to fill a two hour movie though it’s light on the whys of it all. Lewis shows up on Freud’s doorstep, a young Oxford don who’s recently written a book, but it’s unclear why a clearly sick Freud would make time for him. It’s one of many moments of “a-ha” the movie plays on, knowing that the audience is aware that C.S. Lewis would eventually become a big deal so why wouldn’t Freud want to meet him.
There’s a lot of commonality with Brown’s previous film, the fascinating 2015 feature “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” Like that movie, “Freud’s Last Session” deals with a lot of complex topics and doesn’t exactly simplify things for the audience. It’s akin to watching a play, with the two actors verbally dueling for much of the runtime. That being said, if you hold little interest in psychology or religion, you’ll feel as if you’re watching teeth being pulled (though at one point that actually happen in the movie….).
The film is really a two-hander between Goode and Hopkins, with each actor in fine form though no doubt they’ve been better in other things. Hopkins could make hay out of anything and here he’s a formidable presence as the curmudgeonly Freud. For all the pain the man was enduring at the time — sparking a dependence on morphine that is followed throughout — Hopkins always balances that out with humor, pointing out the contradictions of Lewis’ commitment to God. At one point, Freud’s amiable mien slips, as he reveals a key reason he’s an atheist and Hopkins conveys such pain, power and resilience.
But Goode matches Hopkins pound for pound. His C.S. Lewis is quiet and meek, almost afraid to celebrate his newfound love of religion. It’s certainly driven a wedge between Lewis and his live-in lover, Janie (Orla Brady). A flashback reveals much about their relationship that, at times, is far more compelling than the dynamic between Freud and Lewis. It’s a similar sentiment when seeing the scenes of Freud’s daughter, Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), who struggles with her sexuality as well as codependency on her dad that’s very, shall we say, Freudian.
It’s strange though that the central narrative of “Freud’s Last Session” is, in fact, the least compelling element of the movie. It’s probably because Brown and screenwriter Mark St. Germain don’t delve when they should. Too often things are hinted at and never outright said. A sequence of Anna and Sigmund engaged in an analysis session — wherein she’s telling him about her sexual fantasies — verges on the inappropriate yet never puts that in proper context. Not to mention the overabundance on flashbacks often leave the viewer confused about what point in time they’re in.
“Freud’s Last Session” will certainly find its fans, and the actors are all superlative. But the whole affair feels a bit too dense to enthrall and the script never dives deep enough into these characters’ psyche to tell us something new or particularly unique. As Hopkins’ Freud says, he’s a flawed human and that’s what the movie focuses on: our human tendency to contradict our own belief systems time and again. Whether that’s for you is all up to your own interpretation.
Sony Pictures Classic will release “Freud’s Last Session” on December 22.