Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 19, 2023 9:11 pm 
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Anthony Hopkins still at it

FREUD'S LAST SESSION is the cinematic version of a stage play (by Mark St. Germain). It's talky, but laced with "opening up" through elaborate and immaculate flashback sequences, and fancier sets than a stage would have. Sigmund Freud, we learn, had his Vienna apartment - and iconic psychiatric office, with all its objects and above all its antique rugs - recreated exactly in London, where he has moved just one year before, though he is dying of cancer of the mouth. Did the filmmakers have use of the detailed photographs of the Vienna apartment, which can be seen HERE? The meticulous recreation of these digs may be enough to make this movie worth watching for devout Freudians. The flashbacks are austere and tasteful, with a restrained period flavor that is sometimes quite moving. At the heart of the film, the lengthy dialogue between Dr. Freud and C.S. Lewis, a young Oxford don, is artificial and flat.

C.S. Lewis the Christian apologist in a debate with Freud the devout non-believer is an invention, and such a debate is not exactly a show-stopper, at best. Freud met with some young Oxford don late in life, but not necessarily this famous one. Matthew Goode, the actor, is in his early forties now, not the young thing he was for Chasing Liberty, Matchpoint, and Imagine Me and You, but he's about the age that C.S. Lewis was at this time, 1939. Nonetheless the young-old, devout Christian vs. Jewish atheist conceit sends out no sparks. The only flutter of energy comes from the indefatigable Anthony Hopkins, 85, as the dying Freud, 83. They have gotten up Hopkins to look quite a lot like Freud, though one doubts Freud would have chuckled so much: with Hopkins, it becomes a tick, punctuating all Freud's most dramatic declarations. Hopkins is as watchable as ever, but the debate is a non-starter; Freud just mocks the idea of a god, and Lewis, at the outset of WWII, himself shell-shocked from trench warfare in WWI (we get a powerful flashback-sequence of his experience neatly encapsulating it, perhaps better than the rest of the film), can only admit he can't explain away the existence of evil, nobody can.

Everything's loaded to make this exciting - if it could be, and weren't basically a closet-drama debate. Twenty thousand English people have just died in bombings. Germany has attacked Poland and Chamberlain declares war with Germany. Freud is finally losing his 15-year battle with cancer, is in terrible pain and near his self-determined end; Lewis confirms the Christian prohibition of suicide. Freud's daughter Anna cancels one of her classes to rush "medicine" to him (morphine, not mentioned by name); all the pharmacies have closed. Chaos is in the air. At the end, Anna, chafing at the effect of her intense relationship with her father, is going to come in dramatically to declare, silently, her lesbian union with Dorothy Burlingham. That's dramatic, but a non-sequitur. Lewis' train ride back to Oxford is a quiet dénouement. In retrospect, some of the flashbacks, so severe and so elegantly shot, are absolutely the highlights of the film and are over before midway.

Fans of English biopics may remember this director's 2015 The Man Who Knew Infinity, where Dev Patel played the short-lived, beyond-brilliant mathematician S. Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played his English mentor GH Hardy for whom this mentorship was, touchingly, the great romance of his life. Peter Bradshaw called this film "well intentioned" and "treacly." Peter Debruge in Variety callls it "tweedy" and says Freud's Last Session expands on it "only slightly." Whether it expands or not, I found the 2015 film quite moving, because of the story it tells of young genius flowering under difficult conditions and in a brief lifespan. It's hard to get excited about a cut-and-dried theological debate with a man in his eighties and dying who's (in Hopkins' version) just an old curmudgeon- even though the apartment and office are amazing recreations and the cigar is sexy. Debruge points out that to allow space for the flashbacks the film has cut down on the talk, and thereby weakened the debate about God that we come to the show for. This director puts craft over excitement and art over intellect and comes up with a stunning waxworks creation that will look fine on your laptop or home big screen but not give you much to think about.

Freud's Last Session 108 mins. (exact same length as Infinity), debuted at AFI Fest Oct. 27, 2023, a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens limited in US theaters Dec. 22. Metacritic rating: 57%.

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