The passionate love affair between Carl Gustav Jung and Sabina Spielrein, Switzerland’s first female psychoanalyst, is absorbingly retold — if unevenly executed — by Italo helmer Roberto Faenza in “The Soul Keeper.” Though set in the salad days of psychoanalysis (Spielrein was the first patient on whom Jung tried “the talking cure”), English-lingo film wisely focuses on the dramatic events in Sabina’s life, from madness and her illicit affair with the married Jung to her death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942. Main problem is that film slips early into conventional storytelling and only picks up in latter half. However, its romantic and poetic sides may broaden its appeal to literate up-scale audiences.
Convincing Anglo cast dramatizes much of the material previously seen in Elisabeth Marton’s 2002 feature docu, “My Name Was Sabina Spielrein.” Addition here is Faenza’s original research into the heroine’s post-Jung life.
In 1904 Zurich, 19-year-old Sabina (Emilia Fox) is brought to Jung (Iain Glen) by her well-to-do Jewish family. She is deep into a violent, suicidal depression when Jung proposes they try something new. Instead of the usual chains and electroshock therapy, he patiently talks the young woman through her delusions. Fox and Glen gamely slog through some clunky English dialog and free-association sessions in the film’s slowest and most predictable reels, until the new Freudian method triumphs over the scoffers and she is “cured.”
Still attending twice-weekly sessions with the good doctor, Sabina finds herself deeply in love. Instead of resisting her seductive behavior, Jung commits the professional sin of taking her to bed in a moment of sensuous abandon. His soft-spoken wife (Jane Alexander), who sees all, plays it cool but sends an anonymous letter to Sabina’s family back in Russia that creates a scandal. Freud (who never appears on screen, but hovers potently in the characters’ minds) backs his pupil, and Sabina is left alone with her aching love.
If up to here Glen’s psychologically fragile doctor shares center stage with Fox’s tormented but deeply alive patient, pic finishes with a poignant section that is all Sabina’s, following her to Lenin’s new Soviet Union where she finally meets her fate along with other Jewish victims.
Counterpointing all this is a modern-day frame story set in Moscow, in which Prof. Fraser (Craig Ferguson), a young researcher from the University of Glasgow, and his French-Russian interpreter Marie (Caroline Ducey), investigate what happened to Spielrein in the Soviet Union. Though it has the rather serious disadvantage of frequently interrupting the film’s emotional flow, this narrative device offers some curious glimpses of what Russia has become, from the inadequacies of the Lenin Library to the fate of elderly pensioners.
After adapting a long series of novels to film (the most recent based on Abraham B. Yehoshua’s “The Lover”), Faenza seems more sure-footed on biopic terrain, directing Fox and Glen in what are often genuinely passionate perfs. The characters’ complexity gives the film a focus that partially makes up for some dull scripting.
Giantito Burchiellaro’s detailed period production design and d.p. Maurizio Calvesi’s lensing, which includes some brief but impressive B&W footage in the Moscow scenes, contribute to a rich, rather than stylish, atmosphere.