Producers: Alan Greisman, Hannah Leader, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Rick Nicita, Robert Stillman, Meg Thomson and Matthew Brown   Director: Matt Brown   Screenplay: Mark St. Germain and Matthew Brown   Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Goode, Liv Lisa Fries, Orla Brady, Jodi Balfour, Jeremy Northam, Rhys Mannion, Stephen Campbell Moore, George Clarke, Tarek Bishara, Peter Warnock, George Lenz, Pádraic Delaney, Lukas Heyer Sweeney, Oscar Massey and Lucas Massey    Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C

It’s always entertaining to watch Anthony Hopkins, even when the film is mediocre—as is the case here.

Matt Brown, who previously made the 2015 biographical drama “The Man Who Knew Infinity” about the remarkable Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, returns to the same timeframe—the early twentieth century—with this adaptation of Mark St. Germain’s two-character play, which became an unexpected success off-Broadway, running for more than two years in 2010-2012 before enjoying success elsewhere as well. 

A quasi-debate on faith versus reason—or, if you prefer, Christian belief versus atheism—the film has less strictly historical basis than Brown’s earlier one, being predicated on the dubious premise that on September 3, 1939, the very day that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Nazi Germany had not responded to his ultimatum about withdrawing its invading troops from Poland and that a state of war thus existed between the United Kingdom and Germany, Sigmund Freud met in his London home with the young Cambridge don C.S. Lewis, where they discussed the existence of God.

Such a discourse never actually occurred, though there is evidence that Freud met with an unnamed Oxford teacher shortly before his assisted suicide on September 23, 1939.  St. Germain combined that with the comparison between the writings of Freud and Lewis that Harvard Professor Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. laid out in his 2002 book “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” (2002).  (He also offered a popular course on the subject.)  St. Germain imagined that the atheistic Freud, surprised that the obviously intelligent author of “The Pilgrim’s Regress” (1933) should be a Christian believer, invited Lewis to his home to test his faith by presenting his strongly-held opposing views.

What results is a curiously dry and unenlightening conversation between Hopkins’ curmudgeonly Freud and Matthew Goode’s stiff, reserved young scholar as they probe and challenge each other’s positions.  In a way it’s appropriate that the script, which Brown fashioned with St. Germain from the play, should have been based on a college course, because the arguments don’t go much deeper than a late-night bull session among undergraduates in a university dorm might.  Profound their give-and-take is not from any philosophical or theological perspective; the fact that it descends to the old “why do bad things happen if God exists?” observation—a point raised not only in terms of the interlocutors’ personal losses but implicitly by the beginning of war—is evidence of that.

Even as talented an actor as Hopkins has trouble delivering the pedestrian dialogue with conviction.  He resorts to overacting, constantly playing with Freud’s painful dental apparatus and ending virtually every sentence with “Ja?”—either emphatic or questioning, as required by the context.  Cooke, by contrast, underplays solemnly in the clipped British stiff-upper-lip manner.  If every “Ja?” and “Hmm” (Lewis’ usual ruminatory response) were eliminated from the conversation, the film might be fifteen minutes shorter.

Though the film is based on a two-character play that must have been static onstage, Brown and St. Germain have gone to great lengths to open it up and add characters to the mix.  So early on air raid warnings sound and force Freud and Lewis to take refuge in a nearby church, not only a logical place for them to continue their debate but one that provides Freud with the opportunity to correct a priest about the identification of a statue of Dymphna, the patron saint of those afflicted with mental illness.

Back in Freud’s study flashbacks are introduced to afford an impression of breadth: Freud recalls being raised by a Catholic nanny as a child (Lukas Heyer Sweeney), and being sad when his father (Tarek Bishara) cashiered her when he saw the boy making the sign of the cross, and recounts how he was accosted by a Nazi official (George Lenz) in Vienna after the Anschluss, despite his having been awarded the Goethe Prize for his contributions to science. 

Meanwhile Lewis discusses how in his youth his father sent him (Oscar Massey) and his brother Warren (Lucas Massey) away after their mother’s death, and how Warren made him a little forest in a box—which eventually leads to a dream in which his wandering in a wood leads him to God (as do the snatches of conversation we hear him exchanging with J.R.R. Tolkien, his Oxford fried played by Stephen Campbell Moore).  But even more important, he describes his experiences in the trenches during World War I: his closest friend Paddy Moore (George Clarke) was killed and, fulfilling a promise made to his dead comrade, after returning home his wounded younger self (Rhys Mannion) developed a relationship with the dead man’s mother (Orla Brady).  Freud interprets this, as he does everything, in sexual terms, of course.

Lewis responds by suggesting that Freud exercises unhealthy control over his daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), herself a psychologist and teacher, whom he continues to treat as a dependent child despite her close friendship with Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour).  The extent of the old man’s intention to keep Anna in thrall to his needs in emphasized when he summarily dismisses the proposal of Ernest Jones (Jeremy Northam), who shows up unexpectedly, that she should consider both an appointment at a new teaching hospital where he’s accepted a position, but a possible romance with him as well.  Anna, in fact, is given quite a bit of independent footage here as she’s forced to cancel her classes in order to search for the medicine her father needs to help with the pain in his jaw when most pharmacies have shuttered for the day.

But despite all the attempts to add some visual variety to the piece, it remains resolutely tied to the uninteresting interior of Freud’s home contrived by production designer Luciana Arrighi and shot in drab brown tones by cinematographer Ben Smithard; the period costumes of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh add nothing to the dreary color palette.  And since neither Brown’s aimless direction, Paul Tothill’s languid editing nor Colby Brown’s solemn score energize the proceedings, the film ends up a lethargic contraption whose sense of self-importance is never justified by its supposedly deep but actually pedestrian content, or by the commitment of the cast to it.            

It’s ironic that one of Hopkins’ most memorable performances came when he played Lewis in Richard Attenborough’s 1993 film of William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands,” in which the author’s faith was shaken by the death of his wife.  That fictionalized piece proves a far more effective dramatization of Lewis’ religious struggles than this purportedly more historical one; and Hopkins is much better in it.