“We are all cowards before death.”
Looking at the synopsis for Freud’s Last Session, one would assume it to be a straightforward chamber piece; the kind of stagey two-hander in which a pair of characters aim to break each other down before the end credits roll. While there’s some truth to what I’ve just described when it comes to the kind of film this actually is, the reality is that it’s far more than that. Freud’s Last Session is a stirring period drama that’s accentuated by clever editing, handsome cinematography, and an incredibly rich production design. More visually appealing than the setup would have you believe, the film is the kind of cinematic experience that most cinephiles typically long for but seldom get. At its center, however, beyond the many cinematic flourishes, is an exploration into two of the greatest minds ever to emerge from the 20th century and how they may (or may not have) left a mark on the other’s world.
Co-written and directed by Matt Brown, Anthony Hopkins stars as a the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who is battling oral cancer and a compromised relationship with his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries). One day, he agrees to have a meeting with an Oxford alum named C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), who has a desire to meet with Freud to discuss a variety of subjects. As the two men engage in intellectual sparring, they find the tables turned on them and are forced to confront their pasts.
The filmmakers behind Freud’s Last Session have made sure that equal time is given to both figures so that we can note the traits that gave them their reputations and also to get to know them as individuals away from those reputations. The best device the film has up its sleeve to gain insight into the men on the screen is the use of flashbacks, which tell us almost better than anything else, how Freud and Lewis became who they were. Both of these flashbacks have different strengths; Lewis’ is somewhat fantastic and slightly magical, while Freud’s is emotionally charged. In each instance, both men are stripped down to his most rawest, natural state for events that will be an instrumental part of their lives. But the film makes some missteps as well when it comes to trying to delve into the psyche of these two. The scenes with Freud and Anna are repetitive (truthfully, it’s a subplot that still needed a great deal of extra work to have a reason to exist) and a virtually lifeless narration by Lewis sends the movie back a few steps every time it comes around again.
Freud’s Last Session really sparkles when it stays on the two men as a unit going back and forth to prove something to each other, and themselves. Among the many discussion topics they cover are belief in God (specifically, the mythology and mythologizing of God), the natural state of homosexuality, the horrors of war, and the effects of man’s own creations. For a film that aims to cover as much ground as this one hopes to, strong dialogue is key. The script here works more than it doesn’t, although there are the inevitable times when certain scenes can’t help but feel like they’ve been taken from a college lecture. Overall, however, the script allows both lead characters enough room to stand their ground as two generations with very different schools of thought continuously challenge each other. Yet the most surprising moments between the two come when they allow themselves to be human in front of each other. An air raid sequence sees Freud give vital comfort to a PTSD-stricken Lewis, while the latter comes swiftly to the former’s aid when his cancer becomes too much to bear at one point.
If anyone were to think that The Father was the last breath of brilliance that Hopkins had left in him, they would certainly be proven wrong with his first scene here. His Freud is as commanding as the world thought he was, but also remarkably down-to-earth. The legendary actor seamlessly accomplishes both sides in what is some of his most solid, later-era work. Goode is a well-matched cinematic partner for Hopkins. The actor gives great life to Lewis and delivers what feels like his most layered and vulnerable performance since his turn as Robert Evans in The Offer. Elsewhere Fries as Anna and Jodi Balfour as Dorothy, her secret lover, provide great supporting work even if the film doesn’t know what to do with them most of the time.
The film’s premise reminds me of Nora Ephron’s 2002 play, Imaginary Friends, which told the story of writers/archrivals Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman being forced to face each other in the afterlife. It’s a setup that worked just as well then as it does now because there’s always something so tantalizing when it comes to the idea of some of the greatest and most influential historical figures meeting and (perhaps) changing the course of history, from a “what if” scenario at least. Freud’s Last Session accomplishes this, but not without a few rough spots. Besides the aforementioned moments of patchy dialogue, you can feel the screenwriting during the times when the film tries to overanalyze the analyst. Elsewhere, Lewis’ war flashback goes on so long, that the whole movie becomes something different entirely. But none of this hurts what is a well-made, compelling look at a time in history through two fascinating and unique perspectives.