Anthony Hopkins may be 86, but the lion in winter still roars. His latest film is FREUD’S LAST SESSION, and he plays Dr. Sigmund Freud in a ‘what if’ drama taking place just weeks before Freud’s death. The cancer-riddled physician who pioneered psychoanalysis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has a lot on his mind here, and not just in those recurring dreams he’s conjuring of his own demise. The year is 1939 and Hitler has just taken over Poland, leaving the celebrated, and very Jewish Freud, along with millions of others, fretting over the future of Europe. Freud and his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) are planning to escape London to avoid potential harm, and the good doctor has other grave concerns as well. He’s not only suffering from mouth cancer but he’s questioning elements of his atheistic belief system too. Perhaps to shore up some advantageous good graces with the creator, Freud has requested a visit from C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), Oxford don and renowned defender of the idea of a supreme deity. The good-hearted Lewis agrees to meet Freud in his quaint home and their tete-a-tete sets the stage for a clash of ideas, philosophies, and varied discussions hitting on everything from booze to the afterlife.
Whether the two ever met in real life remains open for debate as well, but Freud’s meeting with an unnamed Oxford bigwig not long before his death was recorded, spawning rumors and hypotheticals ever since. Thus, such a “what if” scenario served as the jumping-off point for the 2009 play of the same name by Mark St. Germain and it became a considerable hit. St. Germain has adapted his script now with filmmaker Matthew Brown, who also took the helm, directing it for the big screen. While the play was mostly a two-hander, Brown has opened up the material considerably to make it more cinematic, employing flashbacks of the men’s childhoods, past experiences in teaching, and experiences during WWI. Brown and Germain have deepened the B story too concerning Anna’s love life with fellow psychologist Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour). His daughter’s lesbianism was a controversial issue in the Freud home.
The film probably would have been just fine with only the two titans debating each other, but Brown does an excellent job of weaving in quick, sharp scenes via flashback that fill in some of the blanks in the two men’s lives. Brown shows us how a shell-shocked Lewis found solace in nature’s beauty and peace, as well as how Freud’s battles to understand the human mind pushed him away from a father figure to answer to in the heavens. As is often his style, Hopkins lets it rip, barking about and showing his utter joy in tearing into such a larger-than-life part. Still, his performance shines brightest when he’s in the quieter moments, sadly reflecting upon various regrets and worries about his declining health. Goode plays Lewis close to the vest, cautiously tiptoeing around the philosophical minefields Freud has laid for him, yet persevering by wholly defending Christianity and gently forcing his adversary to consider a deity as the maker of all the wonders found on Earth.
It’s a treat to hear the actors use their illustrious vocal instruments to speak volumes since movement is so restricted in the mostly living room setting. Hopkins uses a raspy Teutonic accent to demonstrate the strain in his arguments as well as his declining pipes. At times, Goode almost purrs like a cat, enveloping the good doctor with his calm rationale before pouncing with a cornering argument. And, as much as the film belongs to the mesmerizing Hopkins, the filmmakers’ POV on God lands squarely with Lewis’ beliefs. They turn Lewis into a tweedish David here, taking down the Goliath who is his elder considerably. Particularly potent is how Lewis chides Freud for so often mentioning God in his everyday language.
FREUD’S LAST SESSION is the rarest of rare films made these days; it’s not only a talky adaptation of a play, but conversation trumps action at every turn. No matter, this is a quietly captivating movie showcasing two terrific actors playing shrewd characters arguing about the big issues of their day like the world order, the dangers of autocracy, and those who would marginalize others to gain absolute power. As is often the case, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in this case, a period piece is entirely about today’s times as well.