A Dangerous Method (15) / The Woman in Black (12A) (2/5, 2/5)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley / Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer

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The Independent Culture

Freud vs Jung: Celebrity Shrink Smackdown was probably not a title David Cronenberg considered while making this drama about the twin pioneers of psychoanalysis, though for all its scrupulous balance and methodical explanation a small pep-pill of vulgarity might not have gone amiss. In an interesting and honourable career Cronenberg has mostly forsaken his extravagant parables of outward mutation for searching enquiries into inner turmoil, and A Dangerous Method goes back to basics, an earnest, sombre and pretty stifling picture about divergent philosophies of the mind.

The film, adapted from Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, examines the friendship and eventual estrangement between Sigmund Freud and his one-time disciple Carl Jung during the early years of the 20th century. The catalyst in their dispute is a young Russian woman, Sabina Spielrein, who arrives at Jung's Zurich clinic in a seriously disturbed state. We get this much from Keira Knightley's bizarre and hysterical performance, gulping her words, bugging her eyes and jutting her long jaw in a manner weirdly reminiscent of the creature in Alien. (Thank God she's not in 3D.) It's an unfortunate bit of acting, and Knightley, though she calms down sufficiently for Sabina to pursue her own career in analysis, cannot find a way back into the role.

Michael Fassbender is more successful as Jung, suppressing his natural virility to play this tightly wound family man straining at the leash of his sexual desire. "What are your particular interests?" he first asks Sabina. "Suicide," she replies, though it turns out she's also obsessed with spanking, to which Jung, behind closed doors, will lend a considerate hand. These encounters, while breaking up the psychoanalytic shop talk, don't generate much in the way of carnal heat, and in any case it's not the drama's main event. That would be the simmering cerebral duel between Jung and his father-figure confessor Freud, played in an even better instance of counterintuitive casting by Viggo Mortensen, haloed in cigar smoke, his placid manner at odds with a glittering gaze that misses nothing. "Not the easiest house guest we've ever had," says Mrs Jung after one of Freud's visits, one of the few lines to raise a laugh, intended or not.

Mortensen, a charismatic lead in Cronenberg's previous two outings, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, carries himself magnificently here, but he's stuck in a filmed play whose relentless talkiness never translates into drama. A man talking about last night's dream is only that, even when the man is Sigmund Freud. We get the main point (it's hammered home) that Freud's exclusively sexual interpretation of behaviour alienates Jung, but it's the kind of dispute better suited to a radio drama than a movie. A Dangerous Method only becomes intriguing when it hints that the antagonism between the pair isn't wholly an intellectual one – it's about money and religion, too. When they board the liner bound for America, Jung swans off to the first-class section, leaving Freud bemused on the lower deck. (Suck it up, Sig!) Jung could afford it, cushioned by his wife's fortune, while Freud would always be struggling middle-class.

At some point I thought Sabina (a real-life character) would also play a part in the men's falling out, rather as Geneviève Bujold came between Jeremy Irons's twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers. The film's poster certainly carries the suggestion of a love triangle. And although Freud takes her on as his student years later, it's not a sexual bond established between them, but an historical one: they are Jewish, which in time to come will influence both their destinies. What relevance has the quest for mental health inside Europe's sick body politic? It's a sobering sidelight in a film that reaches after truth but only talks itself to a standstill.

The film version of Susan Hill's Victorian ghost story The Woman in Black has dispensed with the device of the storyteller that frames both the book and the long-running play. That would be fine if Jane Goldman's screenplay had used the time this frees up to good advantage. Her most notable change is a late grave-resurrection scene that nods to the gothic stylings of Hammer, the film's studio, but does precisely nothing to augment what little tension the story has generated. The other significant difference is that the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is now a widower, his wife having died in childbirth. Thus he is already haunted, possibly suicidal, before he even starts his journey up north to Eel Marsh House, where he is deputed to tie up the affairs of its recently deceased owner.

Again, there seems no point to the change, other than to make his three-year-old son the single object of Arthur's neurotic anxiety once he discovers the secret attending the old house. It seems that the village across the causeway lies under a curse; every time a certain whey-faced woman in black appears, a local child dies in violent circumstances. The neighbourhood grandee (Ciarán Hinds) who befriends Arthur reckons it's all stuff and nonsense, though given his wife (Janet McTeer) mourns their own child's death by dressing up twin chihuahuas as babies he's hardly one to talk. Marooned for the night in the house, Arthur begins to sense he is Not Alone...

The film scores most of its points in atmosphere, the house itself a magnificently spooky echo chamber in which malevolent faces loom at the window and a rocking chair moves of its own accord. Production designer Kave Quinn exhibits a full range of Victorian knick-knacks, including sinister monkey figurines that seem to be watching the action; there are more mechanical dolls lying about the place than in Bagpuss.

And talking of lifeless performances, I'm afraid Radcliffe has not been hiding a talent untapped by the Potter years. There's effort in his will to communicate fear and anguish, but good acting is surely about the concealment of that effort. His voice is his weakest link, a stolid instrument that lacks tone and flexibility, though he's not much helped either by a script that has him saying "See ya" to his son – a costermonger's farewell, perhaps, but not a London lawyer's.