David Cronenberg turns from splatter/horror to psycho-sexual melodrama in this low-key, meticulously researched chronicle of the complex relationship between Carl Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud and how a wily female patient/medical student came between them.

In 1904, a screaming, hysterical, young Russian Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), arrives at Jung's Burgholzli Clinic outside Zurich. Feral in her behavior, she's obsessed with masturbation, defecation and sadomasochistic sex. Since she's obviously intelligent, Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender) decides to experiment with Freud's revolutionary `talking' treatment and achieves remarkable success, as he reports to his wealthy wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), who is preoccupied with giving birth to a son.

Two years later, travelling to Vienna to meet his idol Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Jung is asked to treat a fellow psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Depraved and openly defiant of social norms, Gross encourages Jung to eschew professional ethics and to pursue a sexual relationship with Sabina, who has been helping Jung with his experiments, even expressing a desire to go to medical school. Jung does -- and there are scenes of him spanking her to arouse and excite her sexually, evoking memories of abuse from her father.

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Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play "The Talking Cure" and John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method," it's less concerned with the historical treatment of mental illness than with the way social norms suppress human impulses. The most interesting moments are shared between authoritative Freud, who traces all psychosis to its sexual component, and curious Jung, who is inquisitive about mysticism and spirituality. The science vs. superstition scenes crackle with intensity.

Both Fassbender and Mortensen deliver insightful, disciplined performances. But Keira Knightley's wild-eyed contortions and facial spasms -- repeatedly jutting out her jaw -- are awkward and disconcerting, as is her pseudo-Russian accent, creating more of an unconvincing caricature than a character, particularly one who later becomes a respected psychoanalyst.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "A Dangerous Method" is a curiously cerebral 7, perhaps too underwhelming to attract much of an audience.