Freud’s Last Session

In September, 1939, Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins), who had escaped Nazi Germany with his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), was growing impatient with the lateness of his invited guest, young Oxford Don Professor C. S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), while encouraging his daughter to head into London to give her scheduled seminar despite air raid warnings.   He was also dangerously low on the morphine needed to dull the pain from inoperable oral cancer and so his meeting with Lewis to contest the existence of God would be “Freud’s Last Session.”

Laura's Review: C+

Cowriter (with its original playwright, Mark St. Germain)/director Matt Brown ("The Man Who Knew Infinity") lets his stars do the heavy lifting in this imagined intellectual joust that relies more on a few well-placed zingers than depth of argument, its stage origins all too evident in this stodgy production.  St. Germain’s play was based on a Harvard University course and resulting book comparing Freud and Lewis’s conflicting ideologies, but while Freud was visited by an Oxford don in his waning days, there is no evidence that the man was Lewis (as acknowledged in the film’s closing credits).

Lewis expresses surprise at Freud’s admiration for John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ stating his parody of Freud in his own book, ‘Pilgrim’s Regress,’ wasn’t meant personally.  Freud, whose study is stuffed not only with books, but busts of gods, saints and mythical legends, states that the Bible is but a book of clumsy myths, something Lewis uses a proof that Jesus was God, his disciples not having given a more complete account of the man’s life making it more credible (‘Are you saying you believe in God because of bad storytelling? Freud responds incredulously).  In perhaps the best exchange, Lewis asks Freud ‘Do you ever think of how terrifying it would be to find out that you were wrong?’  ‘Not half as terrifying as it would be for you my friend!’ Freud shoots back.

They discuss the godlike natures of fathers and their relationships to their own, neither very supportive, each finding peace in forest settings.  While Freud exhibited little sympathy for Lewis’s lateness resulting from the evacuation of London’s children, he steps right in when, having crossed the street to shelter in a Church basement, an obvious bit of irony, Lewis freezes in panic due to PTSD, the older man talking him through it.   Back in Freud’s study, they both stop to hear Chamberlain declare war with Germany on the radio.  Freud’s pleasure in his cigar leads to talk of sex and Lewis’s relationship with Janie Moore (Orla Brady), the mother of a friend killed in battle.

The adaptation complicates the play’s central focus with Freud’s unsettling relationship with his daughter, whose homosexuality he thinks an aberration (despite defending male homosexuality as ‘not immoral’).  Freud’s control over his youngest daughter is evident to outsiders, especially her lover, fellow child psychologist Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour).  When Anna asks her father if she can bring Dorothy home, he responds with the old saw about the definition of insanity.  ‘So the surest indication of sanity would be the ability to change your mind?’ she handily replies.  This subplot, a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes (in flashback we see Anna pleading her father for help), while shedding light on Freud’s character, is a distraction which throws the film out of balance.

Sir Anthony portrays Freud as a man facing death yet retaining impish humor, his speech frequently punctuated with a burst of ‘ha ha!,’ yet also a man used to getting his own way, especially with Anna, a relationship complicated by his higher regard for her older sister whose death he uses as a case against God’s existence.   Yet the last shot Brown leaves us is with a man defeated by his daughter’s declaration of independence, his eyes cast down, an odd choice.  Fries is strident and brittle.  Goode displays British reserve as Lewis when he is not forced into mawkish displays of fantasy crudely fashioned by cinematographer Ben Smithard ("The Father") and production designer Luciana Arrighi ("Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris").  Music by Coby Brown ("The Man Who Knew Infinity") utilizes sharp bursts of violin and cello for tension, with waltzes an easy callback to Freud’s Vienna. 

While there is something to be said for watching two men with opposing viewpoints discuss them while maintaining respect for the other, especially when one of them is played by Anthony Hopkins, ‘Freud’s Last Session” is a middlebrow teleplay.

Robin's Review: C+

It is near the start of WWII and the waning years for the world’s foremost psychologist. He invites the iconic writer C.S, Lewis (Matthew Goode) to discuss the existence of god and the fate of mankind in “Freud’s Last Session.”

Matthew Brown directs the script, by Mark St. Germain, of his stage play, by the same name, which is based on the book by Armand Nicholi, The Question of God. That is quite a pedigree for the story of the waning days of Sigmund Freud and his (imaginary) meeting with C.S. Lewis.

As I watched “Freud’s Last Session,” I felt that the whole intent of the project is to showcase, once again, the fine acting ability of Anthony Hopkins. And, of course, it does that well as the film concentrates on the words and wisdom of Freud as he verbally duels with Lewis.

The debate, basically, is between the atheistic pragmatism of the renowned shrink and the religious dedication of Lewis. The lines between science and faith are drawn and the existence of god brought to its basics. I do not think that the discourse between the two intellectual titans will change anyone’s mind about god. It is fun to watch Hopkins ply his craft.

Sony Pictures Classics released "Freud's Last Session" in select theaters on 12/22/23, expanding in subsequent weeks.