Freud: A Man's Life in Six Hours

Sigmund Freud

A film that attempts to discover Freud through his work, this is a deliberately slow, loving look at a life lived.


Director: Moira Armstrong
Cast: David Suchet, Helen Bourne, Michael Pennington, David Swift
Distributor: BBC America
Rated: NR
Release Date: 2010-05-04

The sight of David Suchet as Freud can take getting used to if one recognizes the man more famous for his turn as Hercule Poirot, the fastidious star of the Belgian Police (yes, all of them) from Agatha Christie’s sleuthing imagination. Laden with heavy makeup as Freud in his last feeble days, Suchet affects a compelling performance as one of the rare few individuals who can claim to have invented a new field of study.

Freud was a great man. As a testament to that, we find most of his work largely discredited or, at the very least, superseded, by subsequent adherents to the field of psychoanalysis. However, his influence remains undeniable. Terms like ‘ego’ and ‘id’, nearly forgotten by everyday speech, experienced a rebirth through his work and now regularly work their way into conversations, scripts, and academia. That the academy can claim that Freud’s theories were indeed flawed at least suggests that his work was influential enough to demand rebuking.

While it is no longer fashionable to be ‘Freudian’, it is perhaps essential to claim some knowledge of Freud to gain admittance into any intellectual circle. Whether one slips in that company is, perhaps, itself an issue for further analysis.

Naturally, the more one is acquainted with Freud’s work, the more one can appreciate director Moira Armstrong’s vision. Freud proceeds very deliberately, tracing an arc through the Austrian’s life. Picking up a short while after a young Freud attains his medical license, the audience experiences Freud’s life. One expecting a dramatic thread or compelling narrative may well be disappointed: it is a faithful biopic which, in this case, unfortunately means a plodding itinerary. We meet Freud but Freud is mainly working. While Freud’s career may evoke interest, a man’s life seldom is – especially if drawn out over nearly six hours.

Writer Carey Harrison has instead decided to feature Freud’s work and not, as it might have been interpreted, the writer’s own. There is no particular drive throughout the episodes, there is no wonky emotional play, just a study of a man’s work. It might not translate into an esteemed work of fiction and at times it feels fussy and documentarian, as though, perhaps the editing was too afraid to touch a sacrosanct section of cinema. Perhaps it is best to say that it draws out and lingers a little too lovingly upon details a more plot-inclined piece might choose to dispense with.

Each of the six installments derives some dark pleasure from installing a certain methodical harmony: an audience is expected to be drawn into the series not so much by an emotional resonance with Freud’s life but a compelling curiosity to see how the man worked. We explore his struggles to launch a career, to argue for his theories, in pursuing a chaste relationship with a sister-in-law, the evolution of his groundbreaking work, and the eventual flight from the Nazis. If there is one thing to focus on, it is Freud’s work.

The film’s narrow focus still manages to draw out some worthy performances. Aside from Suchet’s strangely endearing assumption of the Freudian mantle, Michael Pennington’s turn as friend-rival Carl Jung is filled with genuine energy, equal parts brash and insightful, who sadly fades away mid-series, mirroring the real-life break between the two men. Michael Kitchen, too, as Ernst von Fleishcel-Marxow deserves some mention: a tragic figure suffering from addictions to morphine and subsequently cocaine – legitimate medical prescriptions at the time, he strikes an appropriately weighty tone that would resonate in Freud’s guilt for the rest of the series.

David Suchet as Sigmund Freud

I suppose any filmed work would aspire to some form of art, to evoke something that is not there but merely vaguely suggested. It can be sometimes difficult to trace this is Freud. I struggled at times: its documentarian aspects seem stronger and more persuasive, deliberating over a fussy bit of historiography and filled with seemingly inconsequential variety and conversations. There is an almost cinéma vérité style to it: the camera captures a semblance of realness behind a hazy gauze of period drama. There are still some inevitable aspects that skews from historical record, suggesting at least some fictive elements: Freud’s personality varies dramatically from some biographical interpretations (varies if one seemingly treats those as canon), and some measures of the Freudian family do not seem to line up all too well with the famous Oedipal complex so often talked about.

This ultimately leaves one with a bit of a hollow experience. It took, after all, the better part of six hours to get through it all and, at the end, we are left a little disappointed. Well appreciative of a piece that displays obviously loving attention to the minutiae of Freud’s life and experiences, his fame and influence does not necessarily translate into an enjoyable pleasant experience proving that there is such a thing as being too faithful to a life’s work. Still, one cannot fault the director for attempting to capture a life in film, careful, as it is, to the last. The film's flaws might have been overcome but alas, a viewing is subjective.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.