'Freud's Last Session' Review
December 12, 2023
September 03, 1939 was an unlikely day that featured an unlikely meeting between two unlikely intellectual leaders. Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins), famed psychoanalyst living out his sickly final days in London, is greeted at his door by C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), Christian literary scholar and eventual author of the The Chronicles of Narnia. The topic at hand is the existence of God, with the Austrian a staunch denier and the Brit a firm believer. The weight of that subject is paralleled with the events of the day: Nazi Germany has just invaded Poland and the British government is declaring war. It only took twenty years for “the war to end all wars” to be usurped by an even bigger global conflict.
Adapted from Mark St. Germain’s 2009 off-Broadway play of the same name, Freud’s Last Session opens up the action from within the confines of Freud’s study. Director Matthew Brown (The Man Who Knew Infinity), who also co-wrote the screenplay with St. Germain, has these two titans interacting with average Londoners as the panic of Nazi bombings starts to set in. It’s in a cramped bomb shelter that inklings of Lewis’ PTSD from World War I start to bubble up to the surface. But rather than allow Goode and Hopkins to tell their own character’s backstories, Brown rashly splices in flashbacks to their youths. None of them match the energy of the central duo, nor do they communicate anything interesting, both narratively and visually. Take for instance the perfunctory scene where Freud as a child is scolded by his father to “never pray for him,” or a scene where Lewis as a child sees God through the beauty of nature. Never would I think historical figures such as these would have the same broad origin stories as superheroes.
There’s also the inclusion of a subplot involving Frued’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), who would go on to become a highly respected child analyst in her own right. Sigmund’s inoperable jaw cancer causes him unbearable pain and bleeding from the mouth, which often causes him to lash out in anger. Despite the pleas of her partner Dorothy (Jodi Balfour), whom Sigmund disapproves of on the grounds of lesbianism being a symptom of a bad relationship with one’s father, Anna stays devout to her father. Fries is steadfast in her role, but she’s left on an island by Brown, only interacting with Hopkins and Goode briefly in the first act before being shunted off on a B-story.
Hopkins and Goode make good (sorry, I couldn’t help myself with that pun) on the material, which is surprisingly more muted than one would expect a debate about God would be. Both of them are polite in their stances, obviously reverential of the work the other has done. The early stages take the form of a drawn out fencing match where one person takes a slight jab, analyzes the opponent’s reaction, and then retreats back. Hopkins (who played Lewis in the 1993 film Shadowlands) is experiencing one of the highpoints of his career with roles in The Two Popes, HBO’s Westworld, The Father, and Armageddon Time. He’s exceptionally playful with his dialogue here, always prepped with an answer even when he knows he’s wrong. Goode never wavers in the face of confrontation, keeping his guard up through his charming wit and intelligence.
The final, and fatal, blow to the movie comes in the postscript, which reveals that this meeting may never have happened. Its inclusion isn’t meant to be a plot twist as the play is very forward with this information and labels itself as a possible work of fiction. But in a film such as this that has lacked so much energy and memorability, it evokes the same feeling as a college professor that has given a tiring lecture and ends it by saying none of it will be on the test. It’s hard to care when you’re told you don’t have to.