Freud’s Last Session

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Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis probably never sat down and had a conversation about the existence of God, a disclaimer at the end of Freud’s Last Session tells us, but that hasn’t stopped director Matt Brown and co-writer Mark St Germain (who wrote the play on which the film is based) from shaping a what-if drama about the event.

We’re in London in 1939 as war is about to break out. Freud has recently arrived from his beloved Vienna, having been chased out by the Nazis because of his Jewishness. He has cancer of the mouth and only weeks to live – he’d opt for assisted suicide (a postscript also tells us) only weeks later. In the interim he’s cancelling lectures and winding down a life, seeing the odd visitor, dosing up on morphine to keep the pain at bay, and wrestling with the knowledge that his daughter Anna is in a lesbian relationship which he cannot acknowledge, and she’s fearful of telling him about.

And then CS Lewis arrives on the doorstep. The celebrated writer has recently turned his back on atheism and embraced Christianity and now he wants to convert, or at least convince, Freud that there is such an entity as God, and that it’s possible to interrogate Him through the instrument of Reason.

Brown and St Germain go at their film from three directions. First, and most centrally, there’s the ding-dong between Freud and Lewis, affable, clever, argumentative men the pair of them, positing and caveating away in their digressive conversation about the big things (God, Sex, Death, Suicide, Humanity, Morality) in Freud’s beautifully cosy, knick-knack-filled study, complete with analyst’s couch.

As a little joke Brown and St Germain eventually have Freud lying down on the couch with Lewis essentially acting as analyst.

But on to the next prong, the relationship between Freud and his daughter, another little joke, since it’s precisely the sort of overheated, co-dependent one that Freud made his name delineating – dominant dad, compliant daughter, fixations on both sides.

And as a very distant third, an attempt to put some biographical detail on the lives of both men – Freud growing up in Vienna with a Catholic nanny and observant Jewish father. Lewis shell-shocked from a horrific incident in the First World War.

Anna out on the street
Liv Lisa Fries as Anna

The play got mixed reviews and the film seems to be going that way too. It’s understandable. What exactly are we being asked to digest here and who is this film for? As a primer on Freud or Lewis Freud’s Last Session is not much use. It neither really explains them nor their significance as men who shaped the way the 20th century and beyond thought. As a discussion about God it’s not even scraping the surface. As a little family drama about Freud, Anna and Anna’s lover, Dorothy, it’s even less effective.

It’s a handsome film, tastefully wrought in a style reminiscent of so many mid-budget British-based movies – The King’s Speech springs to mind. And like many a mid-budget British period movie it’s saved by its acting, which is fascinating to watch and certainly a lot more fascinating than the God discussion.

Anthony Hopkins huffs, chuckles, booms and twinkles away as Freud. Is this “acting” acting, the sort of big stuff Nicolas Cage often does? Matthew Goode goes the other way, quietly undoing Hopkins as the diffident, polite Lewis. His is the more fascinating performance in many ways, since in Goode’s playing of the future writer of the Narnia stories he suggests a man who’s reached out towards God for all the wrong reasons and may even know that that’s what he’s done.

Liv Lisa Fries, magnetic in everything, gets little chance to show what she can do as Anna, the grown-up daughter being held in permanent childhood by her doting/domineering father. With even less screen time Jodi Balfour acquits herself well as Anna’s secret lover.

It’s one for lovers of the talky movie, a two-hander for all its efforts at widening things out a touch. It’s also one for lovers of coffee-table film-making. This looks lovely. Who wouldn’t want to live in Freud’s house?

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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