Adapting a play from stage to screen is tricky business. Ideally, you want to convey the drama in a way that doesn’t feel stilted or artificial. This is usually done by expanding scenery to multiple locations or enlarging the scope of the few that are already on the page. It also doesn’t hurt to have some scenes and shot sequences that are allowed to breathe for longer periods than what you’d get inside the theatre, where subtle movements and body language can be lost on an audience viewing real people from afar. Obviously you need crisp writing and strong, emotive performers, but it’s everything on the periphery that’s most crucial for making the play feel like something other than a play being recorded.
There are times when Freud’s Last Session is able to accomplish that goal, but for the most part, the heavy lifting is left to the acting chops of the cast. Directed by Matthew Brown and co-written with Mark St. Germain adapting his own play, the substance of the film is quite intriguing, positing an imagined meeting between staunch atheist Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and born again Christian author C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) at the onset of World War II, where they discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of religion before Europe succumbs to bloody conflict once again. The main players do an admirable job, going a long way towards making up for the other lacking elements, but ultimately the project can’t overcome the sensation that we’re just watching a stage production. It’s fantastic for what it is, but it never takes that all important next step.
The story takes place two days after Germany invaded Poland, plunging the continent back into war. Dr. Freud and Lewis separately listen to radio broadcasts from the BBC, including speeches from Neville Chamberlain, who infamously appeased Hitler in hopes of avoiding this very eventuality. Lewis then makes his way over to Freud’s house for an arranged meeting, presumably to discuss Freud’s offense at being mocked in Lewis’ book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, published some years before. Along the way he meets Freud’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), greeting her in passing as she makes her way to her own work as a lecturer. Once inside the house, Lewis and Freud begin their intellectual and philosophical debate, with Freud arguing that current circumstances are just further proof that there is no God, while Lewis asserts that the moment, if anything, requires more faith, not less.
Along the way, we get a few asides that provide context to their respective worldviews. We see flashbacks to Freud’s youth, where his Jewish father clashed with their Christian nanny over matters of religious upbringing, as well as Lewis’ time as a soldier in World War I, beginning life as an atheist before his exposure to the world informed his eventual conversion. All the while, Freud suffers through immense pain due to cancer in his mouth, constantly badgering both Lewis and Anna (the latter over the phone) to provide him with medicine, and occasionally delighting in making Lewis act as something of a subordinate or pupil, including having him walk his dog in the rain.
The only real departures we get from the central location of Freud’s meticulously appointed office comes via these minor tangents, particularly as it relates to Anna. A psychology professor despite her lack of a doctorate, she constantly lives in her father’s shadow, to the point that she relies almost exclusively upon his approval to go forward rather than her own agency. Many around her, particularly her lover Dorothy (Jodi Balfour), beg her to break away from him and live life for herself, lest she be creatively and intellectually suffocated. It’s a nice bit of irony to see the man who popularized the idea of an Oedipus Complex indirectly fomenting an Elektra Complex in his own offspring.
All four of the leads give great turns, especially Goode and Hopkins, the latter chewing the scenery like a fine ribeye, even though he occasionally goes into what I call “Sean Connery Fuck You Accent” territory, where despite the fact that he’s playing an Austrian, he just drops the dialect in favor of his natural voice. Hopkins has certainly reached the stage in his career where he can do pretty much whatever he damn well pleases and still be brilliant at it. Goode arguably has the harder task, though, playing straight man to Hopkins’ more animated flourishes. Freud has called this session basically to antagonize him, to goad him into questioning his faith, and potentially even abandoning it. It’s up to Goode as Lewis to stand firm, answer the questions honestly but assertively, and to make it clear when lines are being crossed, but never rise to the emotional bait, in essence countering Freud’s own theory by being the dispassionate one in what is often a highly melodramatic issue.
The problem is that the detours are too few and far between, and thus we spend the vast majority of the time inside this somewhat claustrophobic, poorly lit office space. It’s perfectly fine on a stage, but on the screen it leaves a bit to be desired, especially when the rare times we go elsewhere are accompanied by some pretty shoddy editing. It by no means ruins the moment, but it does reinforce the feeling that we’re watching something that’s being put on rather than something occurring organically.
There is validity in the idea that this is intentional. The pair pace about this room, occasionally listening to radio reports as Britain makes its declaration of war against Germany, beginning six years of misery and fear. There’s a particularly good scene where they have to run to a shelter during an air raid drill, one of the only times where the characters actively leave the main set (as opposed to the passive method of memory). The moment is intense, but it also encapsulates the scale of the film itself. These two learned men argue over the existence of God, safe in the relative comfort of a study, while around them the global order crumbles, showing that one man’s belief in a higher power means very little in the grand scheme, rendering all of their histrionics relatively moot. The name of the day is survival. Theological posturing can wait until the world stops burning.
Contrast this with another recent film on the subject, also starring Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes. That too was based on a stage play, with Hopkins playing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce standing in for incoming pontiff Francis. There the roles are somewhat reversed, with Hopkins being the more conservative, fundamentalist force debating the merits of a more progressive successor. That film felt bigger than this one, because the future of a billion Catholics was hypothetically on the line. Thus the two could explore all of the Vatican together, safe in their enclave and unconcerned with wider issues other than the direction of their institution. There’s an argument to be made that the 2019 film lends itself far better to a cinematic adaptation, because there’s much more room to expand the scenery and the scope of ideas, whereas this one doesn’t.
That’s why I don’t judge the shortfalls too harshly. Given the context, I get why a creative choice would be made to keep things as tight and insular as possible. It’s not entirely satisfying, but I understand it. I just wish there was something a little more to latch onto besides the performances and the writing (which isn’t perfect; for example there’s an early line where Freud attempts to dismiss Lewis by saying he has other appointments even though this fictitious session lasts all day and no one else shows up to interrupt for their own time). You have a man who revolutionized the study of the mind and another who — regardless of your opinions on his religion and morality — created a vast and imaginative fantasy world beloved by children decades later. That these two geniuses remain confined to the mundane is something of a disappointment, but an intriguing one nonetheless.
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