Conflicts surrounding religion and personal ties to faith have plagued the world for centuries. Whether it’s the modern-day political climate or the beginnings of World War II, links to organized religion and one’s belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power often prove to be the impetus for violence and unrest. In Freud’s Last Session, director Matthew Brown (The Man Who Knew Infinity) depicts a possible meeting between Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), two men whose beliefs could not be more different. While the attempt to use this meeting of the minds as a scale model for global conflict related to religion is compelling, the film tries to tackle too many themes and loose threads, causing the strength of the conversation at the center of the film to suffer.
Freud’s Last Session opens in London on September 3, 1939, two days after the Germans invaded Poland at the dawn of World War II. One of the greatest minds in the field of psychology and psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is dying at home of oral cancer and takes morphine to numb the pain. As Hitler’s voice plays over BBC radio, Brown shows the various statues of religious figures and gods and goddesses present in Freud’s office. While Freud has a complicated relationship with religion that the film explores, this also works to hammer home (rather unsubtly) the idea that religious identity is directly tied to the war. Amidst the wartime frenzy in the streets of London, Freud is about to hold his final session, this time with a young Oxford professor who would go on to write “The Chronicles of Narnia,” C.S. Lewis. Lewis is a literary scholar who runs in the same circles as contemporaries like J.R.R. Tolkien (Stephen Campbell Moore) and has recently found himself galvanized by the teachings of Christianity. A meeting between an atheist like Freud and a Christian apologist like Lewis could be a striking, intellectual tête-à-tête, but Brown and Mark St. Germain’s script isn’t up to the task of giving these two men strong enough material for a riveting conversation. The dialogue is often repetitive and thematically obvious, making their conversation feel unbelievable, especially given their intellectual reputations.
Based on the play of the same name by St. Germain, Freud’s Last Session attempts to, but can’t entirely escape the constrictions of the stage. To get away from these limitations in favor of something more cinematic, Brown and cinematographer Ben Smithard (The Father, The Son) incorporate a plethora of flashbacks for both Freud and Lewis that work to varying degrees. Freud is a staunch atheist, but his ties to religion began early in life as he grew up with a devout Catholic nanny, witnessed antisemitism directed at his father in the streets of Vienna, and later experienced the loss of a child. It’s understandable that these life experiences, coupled with his scientific pursuits, turned Freud into a skeptic. Meanwhile, Lewis used to be that skeptic. From the father who shipped him and his brother off to boarding school from Belfast to the traumatic experiences in the trenches in World War I, the movie presents Lewis as the type of intellectual who could believably turn to the Bible and religion for answers. The most successful moments in the film are those in which Smithard and production designer Luciana Arrighi (Howards End, Remains of the Day) create beautiful visual parallels between Freud and Lewis when depicting their backstories, allowing us to realize that these two men may not be that different from each other after all. But while these are somewhat effective in illustrating the backstories of the two men and the reasoning for their beliefs, they stray from the conversation between them, halting any momentum in the narrative.
The narrative is also punctuated by underdeveloped interludes integrating characters attached to Freud and Lewis. In the early scenes of the film, we meet Freud’s daughter, Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), a future fellow pioneer in psychoanalysis who can’t escape the clutches of codependency with her father. Fries gives a strong performance as Anna, making her an intriguing character and a promising actress to keep an eye out for in the future. Still, the script lacks the nuance appropriate to address her relationship with her father and her colleague Dorothy (Jodi Balfour). The film’s discussion of Anna and Dorothy’s relationship is too thin, given the complexity of the subject matter. Freud’s disapproval of his daughter being with anyone romantically (men or women) and Anna’s fear of revealing that her relationship with Dorothy is anything but platonic is an idea that is rich enough for an entire film. Yet, this script paints this relationship in such broad strokes that it feels tacked on without purpose. Additionally, Lewis has an ill-defined relationship with Janie Moore (Orla Brady), the mother of Lewis’ late friend, Paddy (George Andrew-Clarke) from World War I. His relationship with her is a product of the promise he made to Paddy, that he would always look after her if he died in combat. The story’s exploration of this relationship and its connection to Lewis’ difficulty addressing his experience in World War I is often unnecessarily confusing, though, even when Freud and Lewis begin to discuss it more deeply.
Hopkins seamlessly slips into the role of Freud, adding dramatic flair and color to the famous figure’s life. The part fits comfortably into his recent filmography (The Father, Armageddon Time), but he still adds a sharpness and a dimension to the brilliant, ailing man that isn’t present in the script. Goode looks right at home in a mahogany library and is incredibly well-suited to tackle Lewis’ warmth, intellect, and yearning to learn more about the ways of the world (and Freud). In addition to skillfully depicting the character’s tricky home life and struggles with PTSD, Goode goes toe-to-toe with Hopkins, balancing out Freud’s stubborn resolve. Hopkins and Goode have such a strong dynamic that it’s a shame Brown chooses to cut away to the thinly drawn subplots featuring minor characters.
Freud’s Last Session includes several dream sequences that illuminate the feelings of an upcoming change for the two men. Whether it be the end of Freud’s life or the beginning of a new creative chapter in Lewis’, it’s clear that this conversation was transformational. It’s unfortunate that we don’t learn much from the session, but the film is at its most successful when it centers that conversation between Freud and Lewis, which may have been fictional for all we know. Did Freud actually meet with Lewis or just a random don from Oxford? Unfortunately, Freud’s Last Session does little to convince us that this was anything but a forgettable figment of the imagination.
This review is from AFI FEST 2023. Sony Pictures Classics will release Freud’s Last Session only in theaters on December 22.