Few works of historical fiction have been so imaginative in premise, yet so dull and lackluster in execution. Freud’s Last Session puts a powerhouse pair of actors, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode, in the shoes of two renowned real-life figures, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, as they engage in theological debate. But the resultant conversation, based on the play of the same name by Mark St. Germain (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Matthew Brown), would be laughed out of a high school philosophy club. Despite the caliber of its performers — especially Hopkins, who’s in the most fascinating phase of his career with works like The Father and One Life — Brown’s film is an utter dud.
Unpleasant and unengaging right out the gate, the movie (like the play, and the book on which it’s based) imagines a fictitious encounter between psychoanalytical giant Freud (Hopkins) and author and theologian Lewis (Goode), who would go on to write The Chronicles of Narnia. Their conversation, courtesy of an invite by Freud, unfolds on the day of Britain’s entry into World War II, a background that ought to imbue their debate with a sense of ominous urgency, but only serves to create a brief detour to a bomb shelter near Freud’s London home. Having left Nazi-controlled Austria, the curmudgeonly analyst lives with his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) — a professor herself — and concocts excuses not to spend time with her girlfriend, Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour), though he won’t admit his discomfort with their relationship.
The film initially has the makings of an intriguing drama, about a paradoxical figure whose controversial work many considered sexually revolutionary, but who can’t get past his own hang-ups. But the idea is relegated to a fleeting subplot at best, told through occasional flashbacks between Freud and Anna, who share very little of the movie’s 108-minute run time (trimmed from about two hours since its AFI Fest premiere). The idea of Freud reckoning with his discomfort occasionally intrudes on his conversation with Lewis, but never fully takes shape.
Their conversation, however, is never alluring enough to justify this omission, and it seems plagued from the start. Lewis has no idea why Freud might have invited him over (he takes a guess, but it’s incorrect) and Freud never exhibits any concrete reason for wanting to converse with the Oxford fellow beyond the vague notion of religious inquiry. Lewis is Christian, while Freud is a Jewish atheist, but this alone is positioned as the mechanism driving both men to ask each other questions. Or rather, driving Freud to unpleasantly prod at Lewis’ faith, like a kid who’s recently discovered r/atheism.
Lewis hardly speaks or retorts at first, while Freud engages in what feels like the first conversation around Christianity he’s ever had. He even verbalizes the millennia-old Epicurean trilemma (“If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful,” etc.) as a means to reject the existence of a benevolent deity, though the film’s theological inquiry is so woefully incomplete that it doesn’t even allow Lewis a hint of the retort to this for which he was known (the apologetic trilemma). Whatever the filmmakers’ views on religion, Freud’s Last Session affords its characters a woeful lack of perspective and conviction, and therefore any reason to be engaging in this conversation in the first place.
While the movie has an intricate level of design — Freud’s home is packed to the gills with books and trinkets that spur on numerous conversational segues — that same eye for detail never applies to its intellectual curiosities. Hopkins and Goode are, therefore, saddled with largely empty material, but they’re such seasoned performers that they make a meal out of it regardless, forcing meaning and subtext where none seem to exist on the page, or in the filmmaking.
Goode, for instance, injects Lewis’ lack of conviction with a silently merciful streak, as though he were refusing to engage out of pity for a bitter old teacher at the end of his rope — even though the text attributes this to him sussing out Freud’s impetus for debate. He may not have anything interesting to say about Christian divinity, but he embodies it.
Hopkins, meanwhile, is marvelous to watch in every moment, between the sardonic laughter that accompanies Freud trailing off between thoughts, the venomous delivery of some of his inquisitions, and the way each conversational transition is accompanied by brief but recognizable beats on the professor’s face. His pregnant pauses turn plot points into near-tangible thoughts, practically subtitled for our understanding, in a way only Hopkins can do. He’s always thinking, which makes him such a masterful actor.
The moments between the words are captivating, but the words themselves are fluff, and the film is mostly words. Even when its visual approach takes cues from both characters’ childhood recollections, these scenes end up visually dull and conceptually literal. They’re never more than picturizations of what’s being spoken at any moment. Freud attempts to delve into Lewis’ childhood and makes base observations, behind which there seems to lurk a more complex truth about his faith and his harrowing experience in World War I, but it’s a truth the film doesn’t even broach as a question, let alone an answer.
There’s no mystery to Freud’s Last Session, and no sense of visual dynamism to any scene. The colors are washed out, but never grim enough to evoke the oncoming horrors of World War II (despite Freud foreshadowing them with a verbal anecdote about God’s absence in a past tragedy), and the camera and blocking seldom work to create a physical relationship between Freud and Lewis, whether as adversaries chasing each other or reluctant friends growing closer. There’s perhaps one moment of visual expression that doesn’t rely on banal dialogue — Lewis experiencing sudden shell shock, and Freud intuiting his past on the battlefield in the process — but this, too, ends up explained and re-explained in words.
Nothing really comes of it. Nothing comes of anything either man says. It’s all noise — all passionless anger going in circles, captured by a camera that seems averse to lingering on the tremendous talents of Hopkins and Goode, who try their best to rescue Freud’s Last Session from itself. Alas, their attempts are in vain, since Lewis ends up with nothing resembling a real outlook or perspective, and in the process, Freud ends up arguing with himself. The closing titles mention that, in the days leading up to World War II, Freud did in fact meet with an Oxford don, whose identity is unknown. It’s just as well; the film could have named Goode’s character John Doe and little would’ve changed.
Freud’s Last Session opens in limited theaters on Dec. 22.