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12 June 2024updated 17 Jun 2024 12:58pm

Anthony Hopkins takes on Sigmund Freud

In Freud’s Last Session, the 86-year-old actor gives an energetic performance that saves this talky, stagey film.

By David Sexton

Nobody’s better at playing the big ’uns than Anthony Hopkins. The man’s a marvel. He’s done them all and he’s made all of them corkers. His two Oscars may be for Hannibal Lecter and the demented Anthony in The Father, but that’s just to scratch the surface of his repertoire. Even the briefest list of his greatest hits, literary, historical and mythological, would have to include Adolf Hitler, Charles Dickens, Lloyd George, Richard the Lionheart, Prospero, St Paul, Captain Bligh, Quasimodo, Othello, Odin, Richard Nixon, King Lear, Methuselah, the Pope, Magwitch and, lest we forget, Stevens the butler.

 Now, at the age of 86, he has given us his Sigmund Freud to join this dreamy party of heroes and villains. Hopkins is always fascinating, always makes it seem as though what he is saying has only just occurred to him, rather than being long dictated. That’s quite an achievement in this talky, stagey film.

Freud’s Last Session began life in 2009 as a play by Mark St Germain, an American dramatist who specialises in such historical fiction, his other work including Becoming Dr Ruth and Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. It is directed and co-scripted by Matthew Brown, also American, best known for his earnest, conventional 2015 biopic about the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, which failed to ride the wave of wizard lives that brought us The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game.

It is 3 September 1939, the day war was declared. Freud, suffering severely from the mouth cancer caused by his incessant cigar smoking, has only three weeks to live, at home in 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, north-west London, now the Freud Museum. He invites the Christian-convert Oxford don CS Lewis to visit him for the day to debate the existence of God. That conversation is the movie, plus a few minor excursions outdoors showing us Lewis’s vintage train journey, the pair of debaters taking shelter in the crypt of a nearby church when there’s an air-raid warning, and Freud’s subservient daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) dashing around London trying to get him the morphine he needs, while rowing with her partner Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour). There are also flashbacks to significant moments from their pasts: bosky childhood idylls with deer for both men, plus the trenches for Lewis and visits from the Gestapo for Freud.

CS Lewis, then 40, refined, sensitive but incisive, is well played by Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Henry Talbot in Downton Abbey, the younger Lord Snowdon in The Crown). But not, of course, as well as he is played in the drama about CS Lewis’s marriage, Shadowlands (1993), by none other than Anthony Hopkins.

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So these luminaries tussle. Freud declares religion an infantile delusion. “I have only two words to offer humanity: grow up!” He rages against the idea that it can be God’s plan for there to be so much pain in the world. “I wish that cancer had eaten into my brain instead of my cheek and my jaw so that I could hallucinate God and seek my bloody vengeance on him!” he shouts and laughs sarcastically. Lewis winces, demurs and says that man’s suffering is the fault of man – it’s the most difficult question of all.

It will not be too much of a spoiler, I hope, to reveal that the film does not definitively answer the question of whether God exists. Freud: “It was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time.” Lewis: “Oh, there’s a greater madness – not to think of it at all.” On we go. They bond more over their troubled loves: Freud’s for his lesbian daughter, Lewis’s for the grieving mother of a fallen comrade.

There exists some great home-movie footage of Freud at Maresfield Gardens and just one recording of him speaking in deliberate, Viennese-inflected English in 1938 about his career. Hopkins appears more robust than Freud was at this time, given to chuckles, sudden flashes of the eyes and eloquent gestures. His speech is unaccented, dotted with some easy German (Wunderbar! Prost! Danke!), only occasionally Welsh in cadence. Without this energetic performance, the film would not live, even to the extent that it does.

Since Freud’s Last Session, far from his last session, Sir Anthony is reported to have finished shooting another film already, the biblical thriller Mary, about Mary and Joseph on the run, having to hide their baby Jesus from power-mad King Herod – Anthony Hopkins! He’s bound to be good and scary – but will he get them? Next up: Handel creating the Messiah. The party continues.

“Freud’s Last Session” is in cinemas now

[See also: The Dead Don’t Hurt review: Viggo Mortensen’s self-indulgent Western]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency