Freud’s Last Session: Reason and Faith

“Things are only simple when you choose not to examine them.”

September 3, 1939. Britain has declared war on Germany. The world is filled with fear and uncertainty. That is the setting for Matthew Brown’s Freud’s Final Session, in which we watch an imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and C. S. Lewis (Matthew Goode). (It is an interesting fact that Hopkins portrayed C. S. Lewis thirty years ago in Shadowlands.)

Freud, of course, was the father of psychoanalysis. He and his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) have recently escaped from Nazi territory. He has asked Lewis, an Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and author, to call on him, ostensibly to discuss his book The Pilgrim’s Progress. The two had never met before but on this auspicious day, the two men discuss some of the big questions: Does God exist? What happens after death? Do we have free will? How should we live?

Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud in ‘Freud’s Last Session’ Photographer: Sabrina Lantos. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The two men have vast differences. Freud is a rationalist and atheist; Lewis converted to (or returned to) Christianity as an adult. Freud is near the end of his life; Lewis is just closing in on middle age. In spite of their differences, they carry on a very civil conversation. It is not so much trying to win over the other as it is to be clear in what they believe. They argue, but with respect, compassion, and at times humor. And most importantly, the two men listen to each other.

At times the banter is almost playful, as when Freud, hearing of Lewis’s remote father, states that he chose to believe in God to find the father he longed for; then later Lewis, hearing of Freud’s domineering father, states that his rejection of God grows out of that relationship.

Part of the dynamic of this discussion grows out of the pain that Freud is suffering because of cancer in his jaw. (This pain will lead him to end his life a few weeks after this story takes place.) Knowing how close his death is leads to some discussions about suicide as well as the afterlife. Lewis has also had experiences with death. In World War I (prior to his conversion), he was badly injured and a close friend killed. During the film there is an air raid and it triggers a PTSD episode for Lewis. In the pain that the two men suffer, the other is compassionate. Their shared suffering seems to draw them closer.

Matthew Goode as C.S. Lewis in ‘Freud’s Last Session’ Photographer: Patrick Redmond. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film is based on a play by Mark St. Germain (who shares writing credit with Brown), which in turn grows out of the book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. based on his Harvard seminar. That may give the impression that this is a cerebral film. Of course it is, but it is also a study on how the sharing of different perspectives need not be threatening. In fact it can be edifying to both sides. It’s also an interesting idea of pitting two formidable minds against one another in such a way as to let us decide for ourselves which has the better answers to life’s questions.

I have to point out that there is no winner of this debate. I know that, after watching it, I thought Lewis came out a little ahead (more, I think, because of his compassion and demeanor than his ideas alone). But an actor I know, who played Freud on stage, thought the play favored Freud slightly. Certainly Freud is the stronger character. After all, he’s on his home field—his study. His experiences have honed his ideas. Lewis, who will go on to write Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, the Narnia books and more, is very much at home in his faith, but that faith here seems to be of a warm/fuzzy nature. He is more approachable for viewers, but not quite as powerful.

My understanding is that the play only involved the two principals, but the film has been expanded to include Anna Freud and her lover Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour), and Lewis’s supposed romantic relationship with Janie Moore (Orla Bradie), the mother of his World War I comrade. So there are excuses involving those relationships, both of which point to flaws in each character. The film is at its strongest, however, when we observe the two thinkers going back and forth trying to find truth in a world that (as the news of that day makes clear) is filled with uncertainty.

Of course, that raises the question of how we find truth. Our world of “fake news”, Twitter wars, and so many real wars, may not be all that different from September 3, 1939. It is not in the yelling back and forth—or in the killing of enemies—that lead us to truth. Perhaps we just need to talk—and even more listen.

Freud’s Last Session opens in theaters on December 22nd, 2023.

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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