de facto film reviews 2 stars

Freud’s Last Session, the new film from director Matt Brown (2015’s The Man Who Knew Infinity) occupies a strange filmic space. Like Brown’s previous film, it is based on real life characters. But whereas The Man Who Knew Infinity was more or less a standard biopic, Freud’s Last Session is not – at least not completely, even though the focal characters are Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Based on Mark St. Germain’s play (St. Germain also co-wrote the film), the film uses elements from the lives of both men and those around them but creates the historical fiction of a meeting between them. The film notes in a card at the end that Freud met with a young Oxford Don near the end of his life, but no one knows exactly who that Don was. Rather than recounting history, this film sets the two scholars against each other as a clash of scientific and religious thought.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The film opens in London in early September 1939, just after England has declared war on Germany. A terminally ill Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) has invited writer C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) to his home. Lewis assumes it is because Freud is offended that Lewis satirized Freud in his novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. But the atheist Freud, who has had to cancel scheduled lectures due to the pain he is suffering from cancer in his jaw and mouth, is looking to have a discussion (or debate) with Lewis, who had quite vocally returned to Christianity earlier in the decade. And that debate, which ranges from religion, to the scholarship of both men, to family history, to sex and relationships, and to death itself makes up much of the rest of the story. Interspersed with this is the story of Freud’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), who is trying to make her own way in the world pioneering psychoanalysis among children. She is also trying to convince her father to allow her to bring her romantic partner Dorothy Burlingame (Jodi Balfour) to their home in the hopes of keeping Burlingame safe during the expected bombings to come.

While there are some excellent moments in the film, it is not successful overall. Operating in a strange limbo between film and play, it is a weaker experience than if it had been solely one or the other. In many adaptations of plays, the limited locations are a weakness when translated to film. But here, the periods of Freud and Lewis talking in Freud’s study are the best moments. When the film moves to visit Anna’s storyline or to show flashbacks to Freud’s or Lewis’s pasts, the momentum stops. Apart from a few harrowing moments showing Lewis’s service in World War I, these moments are never strong enough to justify breaking away from the main event. Unfortunately, even in the long discussion sessions between the two men, there are false notes. Because this is a meeting that never likely happened, their debates often feel more like writerly comparisons of the works of the two men than any genuine conversation. Moments of true feeling, such as a scene late in the film when Lewis helps Freud remove a painful prosthesis are few and far between. It’s a work that would have been best left to the stage if not for one thing.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

That thing is the lead performances. Goode does an admirable job as Lewis, calm and respectful even when Freud is attacking the very faith that has become the focus of his life. It’s the quieter performance of the two, and is very solid. Hopkins (who in an odd actor’s coincidence, played Lewis 30 years ago in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands) is a force of nature as Freud. He beautifully plays the moments of anger and grief that Freud faces as he comes to the end of his life. His retorts to Lewis are thoughtful but sometimes cruel, even petty, and Hopkins is more than up to the challenge of the character. At a time when many actors have slowed down or stopped, the last five years for the 86 year old Hopkins have produced some of his best work. From his King Lear, to Armageddon Time and his Oscar-winning performance in The Father, Hopkins is in a late career renaissance. In my final analysis, Freud’s Last Session is a disappointment overall, but worth seeing for Hopkins as another show of his acting prowess.

Freud’s Last Session is in theaters now