Great actors don't truly retire. They just rebirth themselves over and over and over again.
Such is the case with 86-year-old Anthony Hopkins, a fearlessly talented gent who could so easily just retire and rest upon his decades of cinematic laurels. Yet, here he is once again absolutely refusing to do so in director Matthew Brown's occasionally frustrating but nearly always engaging Freud's Last Session. Hopkins is Freud, her living with the jaw cancer that resulted from his lifelong cigar habit. The film is set on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after Germany's invasion of Poland. There is an atmosphere of alarm and tension, though perhaps not too much so at times to the detriment of the film.
It's well known, and this much is true, that Freud met with an Oxford don only a few weeks before his death. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that this don was actually C.S. Lewis, though the idea itself is intriguing - Freud, an avowed and passionate atheist, feistily conversing with former atheist turned Christian apologist Lewis only weeks before his death.
It's an intriguing set-up if not a particularly dramatic one. There's no particular reason for this meeting and Freud's Last Session never really creates one. Based upon a 2009 play by Mark St. Germain, co-writing here with director Matthew Brown, Freud's Last Session doesn't so much have a driving purpose as an intriguing and often quite interesting concept.
If I were to have ever met Freud, I'd like to think he closely resembled Hopkins here. You know an actor is great when he makes you believe in his presence even when there's no particular purpose behind it. The impending war is the only sense of urgency here, though this adds more a sense of intellectual surrealism to the occasion rather than a sense of urgency. Amidst an address by Neville Chamberlain and the periodic air raids, these two intellectual greats are having an almost normal conversation between academics.
So be it.
Freud's Last Session is at its best when there are no distractions. Hopkins is the elder statesman, of course, nearing his death and he knows it. He is grieving long ago losses and seemingly both processing and justifying life in all its fullness. He is confident in his ways, partly out of resignation and partly out of intellectual prowess. This is, if you will, his last session. In real life, Freud died on September 23, 1939.
Hopkins is a two-time Academy Award winner and it shows here. I would watch Freud's Last Session again just for the joy of watching Hopkins still at the top of his game seemingly unable to escape the immense talent he's carried his entire life. Hopkins's Freud is toying here, though not maliciously. There's an academic curiosity that is also a personal, an end of life sense of wandering that both defers to Lewis's intellect and is willing to challenge it respectfully.
Goode's performance as Lewis is more straightforward here. By now, he's become a man of faith and comfortably so. He clearly respects Freud, though somewhat warily. He doesn't agree with him, of course, but he's also not here to convert him. There's seemingly no agenda between the two men.
There are supporting performances, of course, but Freud's Last Session is most alive when the lens focuses mostly on these two fine men whether this conversation ever really occurred or not. Freud's Last Session is a film for those who enjoy acting at its finest. The film itself never really rises up to the greatness of its acting. The script, despite being for the most part engaging, never quite justifies its presence other than giving an opportunity for two gifted actors to show what acting is truly all about and how truly great actors can make sense of even mid-range material.
Freud's Last Session is currently on an arthouse run theatrically. It's likely to find its greatest audience when it arrives on streaming platforms in the weeks and months to come.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic