Freud’s Last Session  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Matthew Brown, Ireland/UK/US, 2023, 109 mins

Cast:  Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Goode, Liv Lisa Fries

Review by Carol Allen

September 3rd 1939.   The world is on the brink of war.  In the study of his Hampstead home, Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) the father of psychoanalysis, has a meeting with Oxford don and theologian, C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), a convinced Christian, who had mocked Freud’s work in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress.  

As world war looms for the second time in the twentieth century, they debate the existence or otherwise of God. 

That is the subject matter of this film, adapted by Mark St. Germain and director Matthew Brown from St. Germain’s play and cleverly opened out cinematically from the original script, to throw further light on what is  happening in the room.

Hopkins gives yet another charismatic performance as Freud, who is dosing himself with whiskey and morphine for the acute pain he is suffering from the mouth cancer, which is killing him but whose brain is as sharp as a razor.  He is at times like a mischievous gnome, at others irascible, both with Lewis and particularly with his devoted daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), a psychoanalyst now in her own right but still dominated by her devotion to her father.

Goode as the much younger Lewis, who was around 40 at the time, despite his Belfast birth is the epitome of the English university don – charming, caring, polite with a self-assurance masked by an apparent diffidence.   The only time he loses it is when Freud questions him about his relationship with Janie Moore (Orla Brady), the mother of his close friend Paddy (George Andrew-Clarke), whom he saw killed in the First World War.

The articulate and intelligent debate between the two men is illustrated throughout by scenes from the two men’s past, which throw light on their attitudes and thinking.  Flashbacks to the trenches and more recently Freud’s home a Vienna which is now in the thrall of the Nazis and where Anna is arrested in lieu of her father – an event which finally persuades him he has to leave his beloved Vienna.   Particularly enlightening are scenes of Sigmund as a small boy with his atheist Jewish father and Catholic nanny, who is trying, against the father’s wishes, to lead her small charge to God. 

There’s a strong performance too from Fries as Anna, torn between her devotion to her father and her love for her colleague Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (Jodi Balfour) – a love which her father vehemently refuses to acknowledge.  Like Lewis’s relationship with Janie Moore, it was a love which has never been publicly confirmed but in the world of this film, both have their place. 

The film has an accurate sense of the period, both in its painstaking reconstruction of Freud’s real life study in Hampstead and in the world outside, from the trenches of the First World War to the steam trains and the streets of London, a city being prepared for impending invasion. 

And in that world on September 3rd 1939 the real Sigmund Freud did indeed have a meeting with an unnamed Oxford don.   We don’t know who he was but he might just have been the man who created The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe