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‘Freud’s Last Session’ plumbs life’s big questions

“Freud’s Last Session” (2023). Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Goode, Liv Lisa Fries, Jodi Balfour, Jeremy Northam, Orla Brady, George Andrew-Clarke, Rhys Mannion, Pádraic Delaney, Stephen Campbell Moore, Peter Warnock, Tarek Bishara, Anna Blomeyer, Lukas Heyer Sweeney, Nina Kolomiitseva, Oscar Massey, Lucas Massey, Gary Buckley. Director: Matt Brown. Screenplay: Mark St. Germain and Matt Brown. Play: Mark St. Germain, Freud’s Last Session (2009). Book: Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr., The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (2002). Web site. Trailer.

In all truthfulness, how often do most of us take the time to contemplate life’s “big issues”? Given the importance and impact they have on us, one might think they’re something we should all examine in greater detail and on a more frequent basis than we probably do. Yet we often find ourselves distracted by the comparatively inconsequential minutiae of everyday life, setting aside those grand questions that we must all ultimately address for ourselves. And, as the number of days ahead of us begins to dwindle, we’re frequently forced to scramble for insights, perhaps not being able to examine these matters in the depth and detail that they deserve. However, if we truly want to do them – and ourselves – justice, we should make the effort to probe them with a sincere sense of introspection in hopes of arriving at some profound, meaningful conclusions while we still have the chance, an undertaking explored in the engaging new philosophical drama, “Freud’s Last Session.”

Near the end of his life in 1939, Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) – considered by many to be the father of modern psychiatry – held one last session at his London home after the Austrian ex-patriot fled encroaching Nazi oppression in his native Vienna. At that time, just as the German blitzkrieg against Poland was beginning and war with Britain was looming, Freud is said to have met with an Oxford scholar, believed to be author and theologian C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), in a lengthy session in which the duo discussed a variety of big issue subjects. In writer-director Matt Brown’s hypothetical meeting between them, viewers witness the two visionaries debate such topics as atheism vs. faith, science vs. religion/spirituality, the nature of fear, their respective backgrounds (including the personal demons that have haunted them) and their relationships with family members. Their conversations are both mesmerizing and revelatory, uncovering aspects of each of them that most of us probably never knew.

After escaping his native Vienna, Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) relocates to London to spend his final days, including one final insightful meeting with an Oxford scholar, as seen in the engaging philosophical drama, “Freud’s Last Session,” available for streaming online. Photo by Patrick Redmond, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In the course of these dialogues, it becomes apparent that this session was as much for Freud’s benefit as it was for Lewis, given that the good doctor was in the late stages of oral cancer and contemplating how to make peace with his impending death. The exchanges between the two delve into some very heady material, the kind of discussions that movies rarely, if ever, deal with in such depth, especially as pointedly and insightfully as they’re depicted here. Their byplay is intercut with a series of flashbacks, providing the back story about how they each arrived at their respective points in their lives, leaving little doubt as to where they were coming from, as well as why they each harbored inherently conflicting viewpoints that led them both to continually question the nature of their lives, their existence and their place in the Universe.

Before the session begins, Freud expresses reservations about it, almost as if he’d rather not engage in it. From that hesitancy, it would seem he might be sensing what’s to come, and that prospect induces a certain degree of quietly nervous reluctance. But, when Lewis arrives, there’s no backing down, and, before long, he finds himself in the midst of discussions that make him uncomfortable. For instance, in light of his failing health, he knows he must make peace with his looming demise. But, as a man of science and an avowed atheist, he’s hesitant to talk about subjects like the afterlife and the existence of a divine presence, considerations that he may be forced to deal with sooner and in greater depth than he’d like to admit. It’s somewhat ironic, too, given that Freud is a collector of religious iconography from many of the world’s spiritual traditions, something he unconvincingly dismisses as an intellectual exercise and not as something more. His discomfort with this notion is further enhanced by Lewis’s unapologetically devoted sense of faith and piety, qualities that he makes no effort to hide. His zeal for this topic is apparent, and that freely expressed passion comes across as a direct challenge to Freud’s supposed conviction to his perspective, making the good doctor appear a little less certain about his viewpoint than he’d like anyone to believe.

Author, theologian and Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) engages in a thoughtful dialogue with the father of modern psychiatry, Dr. Sigmund Freud, in director Matt Brown’s latest offering, “Freud’s Last Session.” Photo by Patrick Redmond, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Part of what’s driving Freud’s discomfort is a well-concealed sense of fear, a subject that provides fertile ground for the duo’s conversation, and this is an area where both parties have their share of issues to examine. For Freud, his fear is being driven by his declining health and the uncertainty that awaits him. Meanwhile, for Lewis, the prospect of another war with Germany shakes him to his core, especially given the impact the previous conflict had on him. Having served as a soldier during World War I, he saw firsthand the devastating impression it left, such as being injured, getting caught in the crossfire, and witnessing up close the death of his compatriot and close friend, Paddy Moore (George Andrew-Clarke), circumstances all depicted in one of the film’s flashbacks. And now, with a new war forthcoming, all of the old terrifying instincts come rushing back, as seen in one sequence when the duo is hurriedly forced to flee Freud’s home and seek safety in an air raid shelter.

The fallout from their respective fears also pushes Freud and Lewis to deal with painful incidents in their personal relationships. For Freud, this surfaces in several contexts, such as the often-dysfunctional relationship that his younger self (Lukas Heyer Sweeney) experienced with his father, Jacob (Tarek Bishara), especially when it came to matters of religion. Then there was the sadness Freud felt as a result of the loss of his daughter, Sophie (Nina Kolomiitseva), a young mother who fell victim to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. However, perhaps the biggest challenge came in his arm’s-length relationship with his lesbian daughter, Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), who struggled to maintain a clandestine partnership with her significant other, Dorothy (Jodi Balfour). Freud’s feelings for Anna were particularly complicated, given the hypocritical nature of his views about her sexual orientation, a stance that squarely flew in the face of the supposedly (some might say shockingly) open-minded outlook he publicly maintained about homosexuality at the time. His stern disapproval of her lifestyle put up something of a wall between father and daughter, keeping Anna from moving forward in her life and putting her in a position of always seeking her dad’s approval, actions that strained whatever future she might have with her partner.

Anna Freud (Liv Lisa Fries), daughter of Dr. Sigmund Freud, struggles with her father’s reluctance to accept her lesbian lifestyle, despite his supposedly open-minded stance on the subject, in director Matt Brown’s “Freud’s Last Session.” Photo by Patrick Redmond, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Lewis had his share of relationship issues to deal with, too. Having lost his mother at a young age, he was subsequently faced with a father (Gary Buckley) whose inconsolable despondency drove him to disavow most of his parental responsibilities, resulting in his younger self (Oscar Massey) and brother (Lucas Massey) being sent away to boarding school. This disillusionment persisted in his outlook on life for years thereafter, having been resurrected once more through the loss of his friend Paddy, who, in a final dying request, asked Lewis to look after his mother, Janie (Orla Brady). Lewis fulfilled his obligation to his friend, an action that led to a complicated relationship with Janie that he was reluctant to discuss, probably because of the unusual circumstances under which their connection was forged.

Some might find the foregoing material an unusual basis for a movie narrative, and, admittedly, it is somewhat unconventional. Not many films would readily draw upon such profound subjects in coming up with the storyline for their productions. But, given the wisdom and insights to come out of this picture, maybe more of them should. “Freud’s Last Session” gives us much to think about, especially when it comes to the kinds of issues to which we should all probably devote more reflective and thoughtful attention.

The themes covered in this film are, admittedly, some of the biggest considerations we face in life. Given their importance, then, it’s crucial that we get a handle on what we think and believe about them, as they ultimately have a bearing on how things turn out for us, for better or worse. Which is why we should all probably spend more time pondering them than we do in light of the role they play in the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources are responsible for shaping our existence. It’s not clear how many of us give this much thought (or have even heard of this way of thinking), but, considering the implications, we’d be wise to do so, as this film’s two visionaries do in their insightful dialogue.

Even though Freud is the one theoretically conducting the session, as noted above, given the circumstances under which he was operating at the time of the meeting, its content was probably more for his benefit than for that of his “patient.” As the good doctor was nearing the end of his life, the big issue considerations that he and his colleague discussed were arguably more pressing for him than they were for Lewis. With the clock running out, Freud needed to assess his beliefs in these areas while he still had the time and opportunity to do so, especially since he didn’t seem to be completely sold on the conclusions he had previously drawn for himself.

The horrors of fighting in World War I leave a painful impression on author, theologian and Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis as seen in a flashback in the engaging philosophical drama, “Freud’s Last Session,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Sabrina Lantos, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For instance, on the question of his atheism, Freud often comes across as feeling the need to sell himself on his own beliefs, especially now that death was looming, perhaps because he was having to wrestle with the question of “What if I’ve been wrong all these years?” As someone firmly ensconced in the ways of science, religion and spirituality didn’t seem to offer enough definitive validation and substance to suit his sensibilities. But, if he was so disdainful of those intangible concepts, why did he spend so much time studying them and collecting the artifacts associated with them? Were these efforts meant to be gestures of goodwill, symbols of his willingness to at least give these notions a shot, even if his beliefs didn’t allow him to buy into them wholeheartedly? What’s more, with death waiting in the wings, was doubt about what comes next beginning to creep into his thinking at the eleventh hour? Indeed, could this mark the emergence of a belief that could potentially undermine the viability of his supposedly solid, long-established atheist leanings? And, if so, then what was he supposed to believe now? It’s thus easy to understand how that kind of psychological ambivalence might cause a significant dilemma for someone who was supposed to be all-knowing about the nature of the human psyche.

In turn, could it be that Lewis’s deep entrenchment in his faith represents a further threat to Freud’s thinking, clouding it even more than what he was wrestling with on his own? Spiritual and religious notions seem to come easily and naturally to Lewis, even though they’re based on “unsubstantiated” beliefs and not grounded in supposedly cold, hard, immutable facts. This is something Freud has difficulty accepting, and that lends further fuel to the fire of doubt now seemingly burning in his psyche. Freud can’t help but wonder how readily Lewis gives himself over to this unproven school of thought, especially considering that the concepts behind it are based on the alleged grace of a supposedly loving divine being who had put his patient through so many trying circumstances in his life (the death of his mother in childhood, his wartime turmoil and the lingering fears that grew out of those experiences). Yet Lewis sees that there’s more to religion and spirituality than what Freud believes constitute these concepts, and he willingly gives himself over to them, thereby providing the basis for his belief in them, a leap of faith that leaves the doctor somewhat unnerved.

Comparable dialogues also come up between Freud and Lewis where the subjects of fear, relationships and sexuality are concerned, and the film showcases their respective beliefs in these areas, highlighting their differences of opinion, their areas of concern and their indecision on how to adequately address them. In the end, though, their viewpoints on these subjects again come down to what they believe about them, which, in turn, accounts for what materializes in their respective lives.

Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins, right) and author C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode, left) engage in a protracted conversation about life’s big questions, as seen in writer-director Matt Brown’s “Freud’s Last Session.” Photo by Sabrina Lantos, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Of course, ultimately, the biggest question that arises is, does this discourse provide them with any meaningful answers? In my view, that’s something that comes up for all of us in the end, and we invariably are faced with the same conclusion – that life is its own answer, based on the beliefs that we hold, for they’re responsible for manifesting what we conceive about it. That may sound a bit cryptic to some, but it’s something we each eventually must come to discover for ourselves as we make our way through this thing called life. Existence is indeed what we make of it, based on what we each believe it to be, a notion that carries though right until the very end, as Freud – a man who supposedly has all the answers – comes to discover for himself. Both he and Lewis are left with a sense of wonder about the ethereal nature of reality, but isn’t that part and parcel of what this journey is all about?

Films about ideas are by no means everyone’s cup of tea. But anyone who’s interested in plumbing the depths of life’s big questions is sure to find this an especially engaging offering. Making all of this work are the stellar performances of Hopkins (in one of his best-ever screen roles) and Goode, both of whom are in top form here. Admittedly, given the picture’s source material as a stage play, some may find the film a little wooden at times, and, without a doubt, there are a few occasional hiccups in the flow of the narrative. But, given the richness and depth of the characters’ exchanges, these bumpy little glitches are easily overlooked in favor of the magnitude of what viewers receive in return. Those looking for “entertaining” fare are likely to be disappointed by this offering. But those seeking material that’s “enriching” and substantive will find “Freud’s Last Session” a thoughtful and engaging watch, one that’s certain to give us pause about life’s bigger questions and how they apply to us, all in the hope of providing deeper meaning into why we’re here and what this thing called life is all about. The film is available for streaming online.

Life can be quite a journey, but how many of us actually take the time to examine its profound nature? There’s so much to be understood and so much to be explored, and yet we often only scratch the surface or limit ourselves to narrow windows of experience. Is that enough? And is what we choose to focus on truly sufficient given all of the options available? Would we benefit from casting a wider net to see what best suits us and aligns most effectively with the beliefs that constitute our true selves and inner beings? This film gives us much to consider along those lines. And we’d be wise to consider that.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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