THE STORY – Tells of a meeting between C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud and the debate on God that follows, and discussions of the nature of their relationships with other people such as Freud’s daughter.
THE CAST – Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Goode & Liv Lisa Fries
THE TEAM – Matt Brown (Director) & Mark St. Germain (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
For those authors who delight in tossing historical facts to the wind, writing about imagined meetings between great figures from history must seem like catnip. You can make up anything about such a get-together and defend it by saying, “Well, it could have happened.” That temptation occurs with screenwriters as well, resulting in such memorable, if fictitious, meetings as those between two great Indian leaders in “RRR” and two popes in, well…”The Two Popes.” There’s even a consultation between a fictional character (Sherlock Holmes) and a real-life psychiatrist (Sigmund Freud) in the memorable “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” which may serve as the peak of literary speculation.
Freud again figures in the latest “What if?” mashup, Matthew Brown’s film adaptation of “Freud’s Last Session,” the 2009 stage play by Mark St. Germain that posited a possibly fictional meeting between confirmed atheist Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and famed Oxford professor and recent Christian convert C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) in 1939 London. The meeting takes place on September 3, just two days before Hitler was to invade Poland, triggering the start of World War II, and Londoners are in a panic as Lewis arrives at Freud’s home late (as his host rudely points out).
Freud has sought the meeting to confront Lewis over his new-found belief in God, maybe seeking amusement or an intellectual battle of wits. Or perhaps, given the fact that Freud is in the late stages of inoperable oral cancer, he is looking to be convinced that he is wrong about the afterlife and there is indeed a divine plan after his imminent death. Even as other topics are broached — families, the war, the power of music, and, of course, sex — the specter of death seems to hang over every conversation as an almost looming presence. It’s as if Freud knows that the clock is ticking, and he has only a short amount of time left to get the answers that will help to put his mind at ease.
This is pretty heady material for mass audience entertainment, one that could only work with actors as skilled as Hopkins and Goode. In many ways, Lewis, with his defense of God’s mercy (even as he is suffering from PTSD from WWI), is the more challenging role. An unassuming man, Goode’s Lewis is immediately questioned by his intellectual host, and it’s a joy to see Goode marshaling his strength to go toe-to-toe with the great Freud (and, by extension, the great Hopkins, as well).
One might think that Freud is just the kind of “great man” character that is totally in Hopkins’ wheelhouse, and in one sense, it is — one man who has earned authority and respect portraying another. But Hopkins reveals a vulnerability to Freud that may be unexpected but very welcome. Yes, his Freud is in complete control of his intellectual powers, but his body is forsaking him, with his ultimate fate soon to be determined by factors totally out of his control. That he is being portrayed by an actor like Hopkins — who, despite his current remarkable Oscar-winning renaissance, is nonetheless in the twilight of his career — brings an added poignancy to his portrayal that can’t be measured.
If only the film around them was up to the quality of its stars. When adapting a two-character, one-set play to the screen, director Brown and playwright St. Germain, who joined forces on the film’s screenplay, have understandably chosen to make the story more cinematic by creating additional storylines for characters who are merely mentioned in the play. The codependent relationship between Freud and his psychoanalyst daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), for example, may be crucial to his character. Still, the film creates an elaborate work life for Anna, as well as including her real-life romantic relationship with a female colleague (Jodi Balfour) that is intriguing but whose story value may not justify its length. Similarly, the backstory of Lewis’ long-standing relationship with the mother of a dead Army buddy may be an interesting factoid, but it keeps us from getting back to the place where we really want to be — with Freud and Lewis going at it.
Still, the opportunity to see actors of this quality flex with roles this complex should not be taken lightly. Even if the vehicle that delivers them to us can be wobbly at times, their remarkable work will be the elements for which “Freud’s Last Session” will be remembered for some time to come.