Hysteria‘s singular tweeness may rub some the wrong way, but there are still enough good vibrations for a somewhat pleasurable experience.
The now discredited concept of women’s hysteria has ancient origins, tracing its history back to the “wandering wombs” of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Popular in the 19th century, the diagnosis was prescribed for women suffering everything from faintness and nervousness to sexual desire and “a tendency to cause trouble”. This outdated notion serves as the basis for Hysteria‘s satirical exploration of Victorian social mores, along with what amounts to a one joke rom-com populated by a superior cast and a barrage of nudge-nudge-wink-winking.
Based more or less on the true story of the invention of the vibrator, Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria follows Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is the very model of an English gentleman. Frustrated with the backwards medical establishment, he is fired from another hospital, seeking medical work wherever he can find it. He finds it with Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), an elderly practitioner who runs a practice for treating women’s hysteria. The in-demand service requires manual stimulation of the patients, something that ingratiates him with the growing clientele and impresses Dalrymple. Yet as a severe case of repetitive strain injury sets in, he looks to inventor friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) for a more automatic solution.
Beneath the medical innuendo, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer’s screenplay (based on Howard Gensler’s story) is a period rom-com masquerading as a medical satire. Caught between the love of Dalrymple’s two daughters, the prim and proper Emily (Felicity Jones) and the more interesting suffragette firebrand Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Granville’s desire for social status and career obligations are the mandatory obstacle to the inevitable coupling. It is an almost fatal flaw from the outset, for once the familiar patterns are established, it is difficult to take any of Gyllenhaal’s weightier moments seriously. This is a shame, because the disparity between health care for the rich and the poor is an issue that is still ongoing.
Dancy is every bit the Jane Austen dandy, to the point that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was another mash-up from Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Phalluses? Sybians and Sensibility?). His foppish exasperation is matched only by Jones’s restraint, in a role where the very talented actress is incredibly underused. Rupert Everett, however, finds just the right balance in a character who is equal parts drunkard and scientific madman. Yet this is undoubtedly a vehicle for Gyllenhaal, whose feisty calls to arms will cater directly to the target audience of the film. Yet this is a slight script, and the cast undoubtedly gives the slender material more sincerity than required.
When Hysteria isn’t outright winking at the audience, it is giggling behind its hand in the best schoolgirl tradition. The origin story of the vibrator, arguably one of the main tools of sexual liberation in the last century, should be a fascinating one. That Wexler has chosen to focus on the comedic aspects is not a poor choice in and of itself, but one that is indicative of mainstream cinema’s hesitancy in dealing with sexual expression as anything other than the punchline of a joke. Nevertheless, this familiar narrative might be going through the motions, but is lively enough to leave most satisfied.
Hysteria is released in Australia on 12 July 2012 from Hopscotch.