Debates are a form of communication many people dislike partaking in. There’s a reason it’s usually an “optional” class in most high schools and the most common environment where ordinary folks debate is at bars or parties after a few drinks. It’s not usually a fun experience to argue with someone for any length of time. However, when you two people, in the right mindset, can come together, respectfully engage with one another about a particular subject from varying perspectives, and together develop cohesive, well-thought-out ideas, it might be a truly enlightening experience. This is what Freud’s Last Session, directed by Matthew Brown, accomplishes so well. Based on a 2009 play of the same name and starring the legendarily great Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud and the surprisingly stellar Matthew Goode as C.S. Lewis, the film follows a fictional encounter between these two historical icons as they discuss the concepts of God, morality, and reality just as the Nazis begin their invasion of Poland to kickstart World War II.
The most immediate and obvious point of praise has to be the two lead performances by Hopkins and Goode. Hopkins thrives in this charismatic take on Sigmund Freud, who is just as sarcastic as he is intelligent. His performance consists mostly of cerebral monologues intertwined with personal stories, and a few jokes and jabs that keep Goode’s more serious C.S. Lewis (and the audience at times) comfortable and willing to stay involved in their debate about God and faith. Additionally, Hopkins has mastered the tired, sick old man performance style in, well, being an old man himself as well as through slow sickly movements, long stares into either a flashback or delusion, and sudden fits of pain and agony to portray Freud’s oral cancer.
Conversely, Goode’s portrayal of C.S Lewis, world-renowned Christian and writer of the popular Chronicles of Narnia novels, stands toe to toe with Hopkins. While Hopkins is more crass, Goode portrays a more reserved character who isn’t immune to dogging Freud when he can. Though he respects the renowned psychoanalysis, Goode is not afraid to point out the aspects of Freud’s philosophies he disagrees with and debate his beliefs with a firm yet calm demeanor. Goode is not only keeping up with Hopkins but sometimes pushing ahead of him with his rather engaging portrayal of a man who has rediscovered his faith through a life of unfortunate twists and turns and refuses to give in to the logic and reason being thrown at him by one of the most respected minds of the time.
Watching these two was like watching a Wimbledon match, where both competitors are firing off on all cylinders, volleying back and forth, doing whatever they can to break the other’s resolve. All that being said, there is no resentment or anger here, which was so nice. With today’s political landscape and most people gearing up to face the ultimate debate battlefield, the family table during the holidays, it’s such a pleasure to simply watch two people calmly and respectfully debate with no inclination of anger, hate, or resentment towards each other.
My fear when approaching this film was how it was going to stage this debate on the nature and existence of God, and if it was going to pick a side in it. This was not the case. Freud’s Last Session delivers both sides of the argument, each with strong, passionate points and well-thought-out, yet not ill-willed counter-points being explained by these two very captivating lead actors. This being said, I can see why someone who is not initially interested in this debate or is heavily in favor of one side would probably grow bored or zone out as the debate goes on.
Speaking of that, the debate is not completely straightforward. This being adapted from a stage play, you can feel how the whole story was designed to be two competent actors monologuing back and forth to each other with segways into other topics or stories. However, this conflict is not set in a huge debate hall, but in a small living room, where two people are simply having a conversation that evolves with each point that is presented. Honestly, the script is a great blueprint for how to write dialogue and situations that naturally flow into each other while keeping the central point still within reach, so that the actors can easily loop back to it from wherever they get sidetracked, ramble into a small piece of their backstory, or get distracted by outside events.
The plot itself does this with its strong use of setup and payoff, showing something rather small that is then expanded to greater depths later in the conversation or overall narrative. That said, the plot does have a lot of speed bumps that both slow the pace down and at times, mildly derail it. The most notable is the use of Freud’s daughter Anna, played by Liv Lisa Fries, who acts as a sort of catalyst for Freud’s problems in his personal life. Multiple scenes cut away from our two leads to showcase Anna’s personal character arc, which while intriguing, does not hold a candle to the much more interesting debate happening back home.
The visual style of Freud’s Last Session is surprisingly captivating at times, with dreams and tragic memories being portrayed in these ethereal-like settings filled with striking imagery. Each of the two leads gets a couple of these, like Freud’s hazy nightmare-like recollection of his cancer surgery or Lewis’ dark, depressing memory of his time in World War I. Be that as it may, the rest of the film is mostly set in one house, usually in Freud’s study/living room, which while it is filled with numerous interesting props, does get a little stale by the end. The staging and cinematography of these scenes lend most of their style to stage play setups, which is effective but few shots in these scenes stand out from the rest.
Freud’s Last Session is a delightfully brainy hangout film, with strong performances and a very solid script. Although many might reasonably find the film too highbrow and lacking in visual flair, the core text and pleasant nature of the two very intelligent men discussing the very difficult subject matter of God respectfully is something worth experiencing. The film features a quote famously stated by Freud, “From error to error, one discovers the entire truth”, which works as a sort of thematic statement for why this debate, and more importantly these two characters, are so compelling. And while this film does make a few “mistakes” it does allow for its viewer to possibly develop and discover their own truth on the subject and themselves.
4 out of 5