[Review] – Hysteria

3 Jun

Title: Hysteria
Year: 2012
Director: Tanya Wexler
Writers: Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, based on their own story, based on an original story by Howard Gensler
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Ashley Jensen
MPAA Rating: R, sexual content
Runtime: 95 min
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 56%
Metacritic: 53

Hysteria is a period romantic-comedy that revolves around, of all things, the invention of the vibrator in Victorian era England, where, you would correctly assume, women were super conservative. Now, that’s actually a really fascinating subject to base a film around if you can do it smartly, I think, but I think Hysteria, while definitely smart, was a bit too tongue-in-cheek about it, like it was winking at you through the screen, and that kind of turned me off a bit. It’s still a good movie, though, and that’s mostly because of the performances given by Hugh Dancy and a radiant Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Mr. Dancy is in charge of playing Mortimer Granville, a young and ambitious doctor, who’s having a hard time establishing himself as a practitioner because he’s seen as rather progressive in his medical viewpoints, and largely questions the conventional thinkings of the time. That leads him to apply for a job at the door of Dr. Robert Dalrymple, a very successful specialist who deals with more patients than he can handle on his own. His specialty: female hysteria. An ailment that, if you’ll remember, was what Keira Knightley‘s character was treated for, though in far different ways, in David Cronenberg‘s great A Dangerous Method from last year.

The treatment used by Dr. Dalrymple in his patients suffering from hysteria was to give them a pelvic massage, considering that hysteria was thought to be caused by some kind of dysfunction of the uterus. So yes, this was a doctor who treated a diagnosis that’s no longer recognized as a medical disorder by manually stimulating the genitals of his patients, helping them achieve “hysterical paroxysm”, which was the word used back then for a word that didn’t exist yet: “orgasm”. The fact that they weren’t sexually aware of what they were doing is what director Tanya Wexler uses to get some of the laughs in this movie, and it actually rather works at times.

As Dr. Granville starts helping out Dr. Dalrymple, he meets both his daughters. One of them, Emily, is played by Felicity Jones, who I loved so much last year in the impeccable Like Crazy (I named that my ninth favorite performance by a leading actress in 2011), and she’s the dutiful daughter who starts courting Mortimer because that’s what her father wishes of her. The other, Charlotte, is the one played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s the rebel of the two, a social activist who thoroughly dismisses her father’s theories and treatments. Not that I have to point this out by now, but Mortimer doesn’t fall in love with the one he’s intended to marry.

It’s pretty much more than halfway through the movie that the aforementioned invention of the vibrator occurs. You see, the practice of Dr. Dalrymple is indeed always pretty full, and Mortimer starts treating so many patients, and with such effort and care, that he develops carpal tunnel syndrome (though it was not then recognized as such) from all the manual labor that went on the stimulation of his patients. As a consequence he goes to a friend of his, Edmund, played by a truly scene-stealing Rupert Everett, to see if he had an idea to help him out with his own ailment, and it just so happens that Edmund had an electric duster of sorts he was working on, and violá, the idea for the vibrator was then born.

Now, Hysteria actually works well in how it sets itself in the period it all took place, with the locations and the costumes all looking spot-on in Victorian era England. And the movie doesn’t try to be too smart and throw us some kind of surprising development in the middle of the second act to try and instill a sense of urgency in the proceedings. That’s all very, very good, but, like I said, there was something that threw me off about the film’s winking tonality, I thought it was all a bit too condescending in a way that could have been avoided, and the film would have been all the better for that.

Still, the saving grace in Hysteria, and I really mean this because I quite liked the film, is the cast. The characters, to be honest, are actually pretty cliché, even though they are acting pretty faithfully and accordingly to the behavioral expectations of the era. But yeah, the characters aren’t amazing, but the cast just is. Mr. Everett, like I said, is a blast when he’s on screen. And then there’s Ms. Gyllenhaal, who makes for a terribly convincing Brit, and who, ever since I saw her in Secretary (a film that’s totally underrated), I’ve known she can sex it up a bit; she’s genius here, her performance is just absolutely spot-on, and her chemistry with Mr. Dancy is really believable, too, and that’s something that I really appreciated about this movie.

I also appreciated quite a bit how clean the film was, considering the subject matter. Not because I don’t like it more daring (after all, I just said I love Secretary), but because the rom-com structure of it didn’t warrant it to dirty it up just for the sake of it. It has an R rating for sexual content, but if I’m not mistaken you only get one set of breasts, and the sexual content is used for laughs and is actually more educational than sexual at times. This film, after all, speaks about a type of scientific naïvety, and explores sexuality in a way that can really be enlightening. If anything, this film got me just as intrigued, if not more, about hysteria than A Dangerous Method did, because it was an illness that didn’t exist, and that many times just was about a woman being sexually unsatisfied. Not that anyone during the time would know that.

Hysteria gets a thumb up from me, I kind of felt denied a bit of enjoyment because of what I said, that the film at times felt a bit gimmicky. But the fact of the matter is that, when it’s all said and done, it’s just a pleasant little movie, with a period setting done right, a romance with very believable leads, and a simple yet positive and effective message to take out of it all. And it proves what Nanny McPhee Returns (which I also gave a B to) did: Maggie Gyllenhaal donning a British accent can do no wrong.

Grade: B

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