Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode go on a theological battle in Freud’s Last Session, which is as as riveting as it is frustrating.
The best parts of Matthew Brown’s Freud’s Last Session are when C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) and Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) go head-to-head on the concept of God and its existence, as they debate on the nature of life itself as World War II erupts. These parts are filled with a mastery of tension-building and two impeccable turns from both Hopkins and Goode. Hopkins, in particular, seems to enjoy playing Freud, who in his final moments, seeks to debate Lewis before ultimately killing himself a few weeks later.
No one knows if that particular event in Brown’s picture ever happened. All we know is that he met an Oxford scholar three weeks before his death. The rest was fictionalized, and the Oxford scholar was rumored to be Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia was partly inspired by Freud’s work. At the time of this romanticized encounter, Freud is suffering deeply from his oral cancer, and seeks to find a way to end his pain.
He doesn’t tell his daughter, Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), and is instead focused on attempting to figure out the existence of God and the meaning of life with Lewis. Suffice to say the meeting doesn’t go very well, with the tension between the two intellectuals mounting from scene to scene. Brown and co-screenwriter Mark St. Germain, who adapted it from St. Germain’s play of the same name, introduce their theological themes in a rather surface-level fashion, and the film doesn’t go nearly deep enough on the question of God as it should.
However, its dialogues are constantly riveting, with Hopkins and Goode selling their portrayals so much that you eventually get drawn into their debate as if you’re an invisible character observing them contemplating on the existence of a higher power. The cinematography (Ben Smithard) also helps sell this sense of immersion, always alternating in a shot-reverse shot approach that puts us right in the middle of the conversation, as if we’re seeing (imaginary) history unfold. And without such strong performances from its two leads, it wouldn’t have worked as it did.
It’s a shame that the rest of the movie isn’t particularly good. Instead of solely focusing on its riveting debate, the film attempts to peer through the complex mind of Sigmund Freud by fragmenting the debate through flashbacks of his childhood and past life with his daughter, alongside other flashbacks on the life of Lewis during World War I and his relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien (Stephen Campbell Moore). Funnily enough, when Freud name-drops Tolkien, it’s staged in a way that opens the door to a Literary Geniuses Cinematic Universe, but alas.
Some of the flashbacks are emotionally harrowing, particularly scenes where a young Lewis fights in the trenches on World War I. The action is brutal, and the camerawork is more subjective here, always telling the story from Lewis’ point of view. But other flashbacks don’t add much to the overall story and our understanding of Freud, particularly his “younger” scenes or when he suspects Anna could be in love with another woman. They’re all well-acted and well shot, but they’re not very compelling, because they don’t feed back on the core discussion or give us more insight into the characters.
The core discussion is about God and how Freud aims to end his life while Lewis attempts to convince him not to do it. Who knows if this really happened, but at least it’s interesting to watch. The moral debate on life and death feeds into the film’s theological themes. The WWI flashback also does. But the rest of the film doesn’t, and it almost feels as if we’re watching something completely different, like a prequel of sorts to Freud’s Last Session instead of, well, Freud’s Last Session.
As a result, the film doesn’t reach the heights of other movies that question the existence of God, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and even Zack Snyder’s works. Some will say that’s complete apples and oranges, but those films raised thoughtful questions about our relationship with the otherworldly and what may or may not exist outside of our human selves. Freud’s Last Session interestingly presents its surface-level concepts through riveting conversations but scatters them with flashbacks that don’t add much to the film’s larger scale. Hopkins, however, is on top form and loves to bring his own spin on Freud, making the movie at least worth watching in that regard.
Freud’s Last Session will be released in US theaters on December 22, 2023.