The Oscar race for Best Actress is really heating up with Michelle Williams‘ much buzzed about take on 20th century icon Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn and Meryl Streep‘s turn as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady on they way. They seemingly join Viola Davis (The Help) as serious frontrunners leaving just two slots for several other top performances turned in by major female actors in a very crowded year.
One performance that seems to be falling through the cracks on many Oscar lists is Keira Knightley‘s take on Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts in history, in David Cronenberg‘s new film A Dangerous Method. Spielrein is considered by many to have been a major influence on two of the giants of modern psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. As a woman and as an intellectual equal.
For those of you who don’t know the basic story, Sabina was a young woman suffering from what was known as “hysteria” at the dawn of the twentieth century. Jung was not only able to cure the young woman, she went on to become a very successful psychoanalyst herself, and is often credited with helping develop some of the major themes of Freud and Jung’s work. It’s also commonly accepted that she had a torrid affair with Jung as well, which may or may not have caused the serious split that occurred between the two men later in their lives.
When I sat down with Cronenberg last week, Knightley’s performance was the first thing I asked him about. “I think it is brilliant from beginning to end,” he replied. “She’s the emotional center of the movie.”
“Just the other day, we had a screening with all the actors in attendance, and I was so proud of Michael Fassbinder when he told the audience that Keira was our captain on the film. Because she was our leader.” He elaborated, “We shot many of the most difficult scenes at the beginning of the film and as soon as everyone saw her performance, they just followed her lead.”
I am very much in agreement with Cronenberg on this. Knightley’s performance was a revelation. This is a truly brave role for the young English actress who has turned in some very fine performances in the past. So why isn’t Knightley getting more recognition for her performance? Why isn’t she on everyone’s short list for Best Actress?
Probably because when you first see Knightley on screen she is filled with facial tics and involuntary jerking movement that some people have labeled over the top and ridiculous. So polarizing has been Knightley’s performance that it often elicited giggles during screenings at several fall film festivals when she first appears on screen.
“I’ve heard that,” Cronenberg admitted, “and forgive me for saying this, but those people are just plain ignorant. Her performance was carefully thought out and accurate.”
He continued, “Hysteria, the condition that Jung was originally treating Spielrein for, was considered untreatable at the time. When she first started with Jung she was a raving looney. One of Jung’s breakthroughs was the idea that you should listen to the crazies. That was unknown at the time.”
Cronenberg and his team took the approach very seriously as he added, “We did extensive research on the condition to prepare for the film. That included fifty pages of analysis, then photographs and finally silent film footage taken at the time. The facial tics these patients had were both humorous and disturbing.
“At the time, the condition was sometimes treated by cutting the woman’s uterus out. That may be considered barbaric now, but that’s what they did. It was a last desperate measure to save patients back then. When she first started with Jung she was a raving looney. If anything, Kiera’s performance was quite subdued,” he said finally.
As for accuracy in the film elsewhere, Cronenberg said, “The fact is, we worked hard to be accurate in every phase of the film. Even down to how often Viggo smokes cigars in the film. Freud smoked 22 cigars a day. Which is probably why he died of jaw cancer.”
So what does Cronenberg think of Knightley’s chances for awards recognition this season? “Well, I never think about these things as we are prepping a film. We just want to make the best film we can. But I would hope so.”
I hope so, too. The film itself may have some flaws but it certainly isn’t due to Knightley’s performance. She terrific and deserves any accolades that come her way.