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Film review: Freud’s Last session and Unsung Hero

14 June 2024

Freud and C. S. Lewis meet in a new film; and a wholesome family story is meant to uplift, says Stephen Brown

Matthew Goode as C. S. Lewis (left) and Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud in Freud’s Last Session

Matthew Goode as C. S. Lewis (left) and Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud in Freud’s Last Session

THE film Freud’s Last Session (Cert. 12A) makes several references to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s as if to suggest that the subject of this film — a possible conversation between C. S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) and Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) — was some kind of pilgrimage. Whether fact or fiction, the meeting deals with not only the opposing views of a Christian apologist and an atheist psychoanalyst, but also the emotional journeys that they have taken to reach their positions.

The action mainly occurs at Freud’s Hampstead home, after he had recently fled Austria. It is 1939. Britain is at war. Air-raid sirens wail; evacuees board trains; people creep around in fear. Lewis’s allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Regress, updating Bunyan, had attacked modern ideas such as psychoanalysis. It has triggered the men’s meeting.

Sigmund’s study is cluttered with figures of gods. I’m a collector, he says, of outmoded belief systems. Paradoxically, Freud is a great admirer of “Jack” Lewis’s friend Tolkien, who, in a cutaway scene, convinces his Oxford colleague that myths can lead us to the one that actually happened: Jesus.

Lewis, like Freud, had till then considered myths as holding great truths but failing to effect belief. “It seems to me,” Hopkins’s character says, “we’ve never matured enough to face the terror of being alone in the dark.” He claims that God is our longing for a supernatural father.

Both characters are fascinated by woods. A model forest given to Lewis “created a yearning I’d never felt before”. He had been surprised by joy and a burgeoning desire for God. His companion recalls once running alone into a forest. Freud, rejecting his Jewish faith, embraces darkness: “I was most at peace with myself and with the world.”

The prevailing mood is loss. The cinematographer’s muted palette reflects this. Brandishing his one Christian statuette (St Dymphna, patron saint of the mad and lost), Freud admits that this describes his own condition. The death of a daughter and grandson confirmed for Sigmund there was no God. Hopkins, full of passionate outbursts, enables us to feel his pain, added to which the man is terminally ill.

Goode plays a well-reasoned but repressed individual. He challenges Freud’s need for answers to life’s tragedies. Why not, Lewis says, regard their lack of solubility as also a gift? “God shatters my thinking over and over again. . .The real struggle is to keep trying.”

Freud’s Last Session was initially inspired by Armand Nicholi’s book on the two intellectuals. Sigmund of the movie is apparently given better arguments for his point of view than in the book. Matthew Brown’s film extends a two-hander stage version, but only Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), Freud’s daughter, has more than a walk-on part. It feels odd that, while she sports a German accent, Hopkins doesn’t bother. Victim to her parent’s whims, Anna is faced with the very sort of father figure that Dr Freud would have counselled patients to jettison.

Perhaps that is key to this film: the difference between needing and seeking to control the world and wanting to let go and let God. Both have their place, and Freud’s Last Session provides a creditable meeting point.


THE title of the film Unsung Hero (Cert. PG) is a misnomer. From the start, it is obvious that Helen Smallbone (Daisy Betts), mother of six, soon to be seven, children, is the film’s unsung heroine. It is a true story, directed by her son Joel.

In 1991, after the collapse of his music business, David Smallbone (Joel playing his real-life father) has amassed huge debts in Australia. Believing that possible salvation may lie in Nashville, the family, with Helne’s support, head there. Unfortunately, there ia no crock of gold at the rainbow’s end.

The Smallbone family, a Christian quiverful, in Unsung Hero

Helen remains strong while he crumbles. The audience is, I think, swiftly meant to realise that whatever the adversities the family face, it is their trust in God which sees them through. This hasn’t been that apparent initially, however. Confronted with so many Smallbones, a US Passport Control officer assumes that they are Roman Catholics. Their spiritual resting place eventually turns out to be the local Baptist church.

Round about the same time, we begin getting scenes of them praying, often for material things that they cannot afford. Neighbours help out, especially at Christmas, with gifts, which include a washing machine and presents for the children. The Albright family invites them to a Thanksgiving meal. Having arrived at their house on foot, Jed (Lucas Black) tells them that he thinks God wants the Albrights to give the Smallbones their van. Several such manifestations of instant divine revelation pepper the story.

It almost comes as relief when realistically unguarded passions run high, and hopes are dashed. David feels a failure when his aspirations do not materialise. His father, James (Terry O’Quinn), phones with messages of steadfast encouragement, often quoting Kipling’s poem “If” in relation to having the courage to dream.

The trouble is that it is precisely David’s risk-taking that has contributed to his downfall. As a result, bad temper and pride, aligned with self-pity, triumph. He all but destroys the dreams of their daughter Rebecca (Kirrilee Berger) to become a successful singer. Helen momentarily loses it herself before resuming her role as earth mother.

There is undoubted hardship, in that they don’t have all the things that their middle-class neighbours take for granted. Even so, we are never given the impression that they, unlike tens of millions of US citizens, fall into the impoverished category.

It is quite difficult to work out where this film’s heart truly lies. There are impressive performances, but, given that Rebecca, as well as some of her siblings, became a singing star, the music doesn’t exactly overwhelm us. It left me wondering whether it is a case of those who pay the piper calling the tune. This is a production from Kingdom Story, the company that brought us Jesus Revolution (Arts, 23 June 2023) and Ordinary Angels (Arts, 3 May). It aims to make “films that ignite a rush of hope” and acquaint an unchurched generation with what Christianity offers.

The film sails close at times to promoting a prosperity theology, that God’s blessings when they come will be in the form of affluence and business success. Thankfully, the unsung but central role of Helen, taking up her cross, carries the day. It makes the family’s trembling spirit brave.

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