In “Freud’s Last Session,” when the Oxford academic C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) arrives late to the London home of Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins), Freud’s chow chow, Jofi, brushes him off. The dog, Freud explains, values punctuality.
The men’s encounter — concocted for Mark St. Germain’s 2009 play of the same title — is imaginary, but the timing is not. The setting is September 1939, and Hitler has invaded Poland. The atheist Freud has sought out Lewis, whom he has never met, to learn how such a sterling intellect could believe in God. Given the historical backdrop (we hear radio of Neville Chamberlain announcing Britain’s entry into the war), that hardly seems like the most pressing topic. That’s true even if Freud, who has oral cancer, would be dead before the end of that month.
But the war context gives the director, Matthew Brown, who shares screenwriting credit with St. Germain, license to wage a futile campaign against the material’s stage-bound origins. An air raid siren sends Lewis and Freud out of the house and to a nearby church, where Freud helps Lewis through a triggered recollection of his service in World War I. Freud shows off his surprising expertise in Christian iconography, after dismissing his interest as simple art appreciation.
The men return to Freud’s den, but the movie, already diffuse with flashbacks, is hardly content to stay put. Before the tête-à-tête is over, the film will have shown us Lewis in the trenches (Freud is fascinated by Lewis’s fixation on the mother of a fallen friend); the Gestapo’s arrest and improbable release of Freud’s youngest daughter, Anna, before the family’s flight from Vienna; and Freud’s father chiding young Sigmund after seeing the boy cross himself.
Expanding what was a two-character play, the film adds a major part for Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis. Her devotion to her father is depicted as so intense that a colleague diagnoses an attachment disorder. But her dad refuses to accept that she is in a relationship with a woman, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (Jodi Balfour). And his professional curiosity about her mind may have monstrously overpowered his compassion as a father.
What a viewer (or a therapist) should take from their queasily etched codependency is unclear, and it’s not certain that the script made sense of it, either. But the Sigmund-Anna muddle has more juice than the genteel intellectual parrying between Sigmund and C.S. (or Jack, as he was known to familiars), which has been carefully written to a draw. Lewis argues that the Gospels can’t be myths because they are too disorganized. Freud scoffs that “bad storytelling” doesn’t prove Christ was a divine figure. Lewis pounces when Freud unthinkingly says, “Thank God.” Later, Freud asks how God could let him lose a daughter to the flu and a grandson to tuberculosis.
Eventually they bridge their differences, in a détente made grotesquely literal (and Freudian?) when Lewis reaches into Freud’s mouth to help with a dental prosthesis. Hopkins already argued the other side of this case when he played an older, Narnia-era Lewis in “Shadowlands” (1993) — a Lewis who, oddly, gave a near-identical speech to this film’s Freud about humanity’s need to “grow up.” In any case, Hopkins parlayed Lewis’s propriety, airs and implied discomfort around sex into a more compelling character than Goode has been given, and one who — faced with his wife’s death — urgently considered the absence of God.
The look of “Freud’s Last Session” could make one doubt the presence of a cinematographer. Shot after shot is so gray, shadowy and colorless that it’s hard not to wonder why Brown didn’t shoot in black-and-white, whose contrast and timelessness would suit the stakes. The filmmakers might argue that black-and-white is no longer commercially viable. But Freud would say that nobody wanted anyone to see this movie.