29 May 2024

Review: Freud's Last Session

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 29 May 2024

A film and a play may seem similar, but they’re not really.  A film is all closeups and different locations, a play is entirely a wide-shot of often just one room.   

A film is about action, a play is reaction, as characters’ ideas and points of view collide. Like a former off-Broadway hit drama called Freud’s Last Session.

Freud’s Last Session is essentially a two-hander between two great minds – the pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and academic and author C S Lewis. 

Matthew Goode as C.S. Lewis and Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud

Matthew Goode as C.S. Lewis and Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

At stake, a debate to the finish over the existence of God.  

And despite the passion with which both Freud and Lewis hold to their positions, there’s also a glee at debate that’s very Oxford and Cambridge, and I’m sure, Vienna too.  

Freud is played – brilliantly, I might add – by Sir Anthony Hopkins, all brash certainty disguising unexpressed doubts.

C S Lewis is played by one of my favourite not-quite stars, Matthew Goode.  

This is another terrific performance – polite deference to an ailing, elderly man, stubborn refusal to back down in the face of expert bullying by Freud, and underneath, the ever-present memory of the First World War.

Freud’s Last Session takes place in the hours before declaration of World War II, a mere 20 years after the nightmare of the first. 

Lewis had been in the trenches back then and suffered a breakdown.

Freud and his daughter Anna had recently escaped from Vienna, and he and Lewis are united in their disgust at the Nazis.

But does the existence of Hitler disprove the presence of God, or is he simply proof of the perils of freedom of choice?

These are debates that have been going on for centuries, of course, but what lifts Freud’s Last Session is that it’s very much about these specific characters, not their well-trodden arguments.

And behind the scenes – occasionally revealed in. slightly stagey flashbacks and asides – are the two important women in the men’s lives. 

C S Lewis is in a relationship – in all but name – with the mother of a soldier he served with in the trenches. And Freud sometimes treats Anna like a child, demanding she put him before any outside relationship.

This despite the fact that Anna is a respected lecturer in child psychology in her own right, and has been in a relationship with her friend Dorothy for years.  

Freud may be a ground-breaking analyser of the human psyche, but his attitude to lesbians is downright Victorian.

Freud’s Last Session is a debate very much of its time, featuring two characters approaching momentous events from different directions. 

Freud, dying slowly and painfully of a lingering illness, is at the end of a career devoted to science at the expense of emotion and superstition.

Lewis’s Christianity also includes the importance of fantasy in a world view. He was a friend and colleague of JRR Tolkien, and later writer of his own fantasy series, the Narnia books.

But during the War he was also able to offer comfort from a Christian point of view in a regular series of radio talks.    Another world, in other words.

Freud’s Last Session is unapologetically a stage play, lightly amplified and beautifully shot by writer-director Matt Brown.  Go to it for the performances – particularly Hopkins and Goode – and for a skilful recapturing of a very specific time and mood.

And for the fact that the nicest person in the film – Anna Freud, played by Liv Lisa Fies - receives a God-given happy ending when so many people didn’t.

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