Freud’s Last Session: Anthony Hopkins’s stagey drama is a dusty dud

Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud
Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

How many times have you thought while watching a film, “this would have worked better as theatre,” only to discover afterwards that it already had? That feeling starts honking away like a foghorn within the opening minutes of Freud’s Last Session, a dustily decorous screen adaptation of a 2009 chamber piece by the American playwright Mark St Germain.

That play was inspired in turn by – control yourselves – a 2002 philosophy textbook, which compared the views of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis and strident atheist, with those of CS Lewis, perhaps the best-known Christian apologist of the modern age. This concept was spun by St Germain into an imagined meeting between the two men in Freud’s London study at the Second World War’s outbreak: as good a time as any to debate the existence of God.

Freud, stricken with oral cancer and weeks from death, is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins – who memorably played an older Lewis in 1994’s Shadowlands. Here, Matthew Goode co-stars as the self-effacing Oxford don, whose wartime broadcasts, later anthologised in Mere Christianity, would position faith as a valuable source of succour and purpose in the dark times ahead.

Of course, Freud would, and does, dispute that – and the film has both men take turns in the armchair and couch as they interrogate each other’s beliefs. In a clunky attempt to dispel the all-pervading sense of staginess, these exchanges are broken up with flashbacks, as well as two B-plots whirring away on the side, concerning Freud’s relationship with his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) and Lewis’s with Janie (Orla Brady), the mother of a friend who died beside him on the battlefield the last time war shook Europe to its roots.

Hopkins’ performance isn’t good, exactly, but it’s certainly interesting to watch, as the actor seems to swipe his lines of dialogue from the shelf in passing, as if playing a script version of Supermarket Sweep. Goode is restrained by comparison, but then the film does a lot of restraining on his behalf.

Every scene feels so quietly pleased with the tweedy prestige of its premise that the duo’s rhetorical moves never actually enlighten or surprise. However many degrees Matthew Brown’s film may be removed from its tutorial-room origins, the whole thing still bears the air of an exercise.

A frequently murky one, too. Not that the film is set at the jolliest historical juncture, but scenes are often blanketed in near-parodic levels of gloom: sometimes it feels as if Freud’s office, its shelves festooned with eye-catching trinkets, has been built inside an enormous shipping crate.

Where might some dramatic intrigue have stemmed from? A crisper hint of deathbed doubt in Freud, perhaps – or a meatier reckoning with the possible unconscious roots of Lewis’s Narnia tales. Instead, though, we get an engineered dead heat, less alive to the power of its ideas than their awards-baity provenance. For a few, that may be enough – but with apologies to Freud himself, sometimes a dud is just a dud.


Cinemas from Friday 14th June