May 21, 2024

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An imagined conversation between two eminent historical figures who may or may not have ever met — nobody seems to know — forms the heart of Freud’s Last Session, an intellectual fable from Sony Pictures Classics that grew out of a play and, before that, a book and an Ivy League seminar.

Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins plays the inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, opposite Matthew Goode as the celebrated author and theologian C.S. Lewis in a cerebral clash of titans. But as director Matthew Brown said on Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles panel, the movie version as he envisioned it almost didn’t happen. 

“I mean you always dream that you would have an actor like Hopkins say he would do the role,” Brown said. “And we did try once and we didn’t get very far. And then we did some more work on the script and tried again. And then he said yes, which was just miraculous.”

Shot in Ireland, where the 86-year-old Hopkins did his first movie more than 50 years ago, Freud’s Last Session presents the two men’s dueling philosophies through an imagined in-person encounter coupled with dream sequences, flashbacks and notable supporting characters including Freud’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) and Lewis’ literary friend J.R.R. Tolkein (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The atheist Austrian doctor born in 1856 and the devout British novelist born in 1898 — a convert to religion — held strong and seemingly irreconcilable views on the possibility of God’s existence and humankind’s reason for being. A middle-aged Lewis, still haunted by his World War I combat experiences, and the much older Freud, who is dying of cancer, meet in Freud’s home in Vienna as Europe is sliding toward another war. 

Their discourse — underlined by their own famously peculiar personal relationships — ranges across love, sex, dreams, conflict and divinity.

RELATED: ‘Freud’s Last Session’ Review: Anthony Hopkins And Matthew Goode Deliver Sterling Performances In Intelligent And Heady Drama

“We don’t know whether or not this meeting ever actually took place,” Brown said. “So Tony and I were talking a lot about it and saying, ‘We can really lean into the dream aspects of this film.’ And Freud is all about dreams and, you know, psychosexual dreams. And it’s just really — it’s about their stuff.” 

“It’s a balance of the psychology of these two men and this thing that I think is within all of us: We’re all struggling with this human experience,” Brown said.

A 2010 play of the same name by the film’s screenwriter Mark St. Germain first brought the two men into a what-if-this-had-happened debate. St. Germain got his initial inspiration from The Question of God, a scholarly 2002 book — and later a PBS miniseries — by Harvard University psychiatrist Armand Nicholi comparing Freud and Lewis side by side on questions of faith and human nature based on their scholarly writings and letters.

Brown noted that a movie about a reasoned exchange between people of opposing views arrives in a very polarized time. “People are afraid of conversation,” he said. “We’re all in our different tribes. And what was so great about this is you had two of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and the idea that the two of them would come together and really want to battle it out and talk about it, and with respect at the same time.”

“We all are going to go home for the holidays right now, and it’s been scary to open up your mouth,” Brown said. “And I think that what I’m trying to do with this film is make people feel like they can open up their mouth and talk about things.”

Check back Monday for the panel video.

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