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Hysteria

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Hysteria

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in 'Hysteria'

Sony Pictures Classics
By fashioning Hysteria as a romantic comedy, director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer conspire to minimize the misogynistic catchall diagnosis commonly given to women for centuries. Although the film purports to expose prudish Victorian mores and sexual double standards, by lampooning the disorder's symptoms and treatment, it unintentionally perpetuates the outmoded ideas.
Upstart doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), an adherent of the controversial practice of antiseptic surgery pioneered by Joseph Lister, is fired from one hospital after another in Victorian London. Not wanting to depend any longer on his generous benefactors, the St. John-Smythes (Gemma Jones, Malcolm Rennie), or their mechanically inclined but spoiled son Edmund (Rupert Everett), Granville accepts a position at an upscale clinic for hysterical women run by Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). In exchange for room and board and a generous salary, Granville is expected to manually stimulate patients until they reach a difficult and “painful” paroxysm, all under the cover of a velvet modesty panel.

Popular with the clinic's patients, Granville is on track to become a partner in the practice and to marry Dalrymple's demure and pretty daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). But as his appointment book fills up, the hand Granville uses to treat the women becomes sore and fatigued. In addition, to the disapprobation of his boss, Granville is enlisted by Dalrymple's feminist troublemaker daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to perform an emergency medical service for a woman who works with her at the charity she's established in the East End.

Inspiration strikes; however, when on a visit to Edmund's drawing room Granville begins to use his friend's newly invented electric duster as a hand massager. After an initial trial on the housemaid Molly, an ill-reformed prostitute from Charlotte's charity, he successfully demonstrates the vibrator to Dalrymple for use in the clinic, saving both his future partnership and marriage to Emily. Yet, Granville remains intrigued with Charlotte and the position she has offered him at her charity.

In telling the story of the invention of the vibrator, Hysteria is inelegantly literal. It works backwards from modern knowledge and hits the points leading to the eureka moment too hard, especially in putting Granville's carpal tunnel pains with Edmund's electrical apparatus. Even worse, the clinic's patients are mere caricatures, existing only as props to be handled like puppets in the doctor's office. Despite trying to appear as their champion, the script's light treatment of them is belittling. They're insulted in speeches by both the doctors who profit off their diagnosis as well as Charlotte, who, instead of offering the same sympathy she gives to her charity cases, calls them bored, undersexed bourgeoisie housewives.

As Charlotte, Gyllenhaal is given great costumes but very little else to work with. Her part consists mainly of long and boring moralizing speeches on feminism and socialism, as if to make up for the shabby treatment of the supporting cast. Because of this, the chemistry between Granville and Emily ironically overshadows that between the doctor and the rabble-rouser. For a romantic comedy, this is bad news. Unfortunately, Felicity Jones' period clothes also overshadow any development for her character.

In fact, most of the cast is woefully underused. Ashley Jensen's perfect comedic timing has no outlet with her small part, and Sheridan Smith's oversexed maid is embarrassing. Only Rupert Everett as dilettante Edmund is used to his best ability but that's only because he's chronically underused in film, and here he looks bloated and tired and delivers lines more crass than usual.

Overall, Hysteria attempts to be amusing fail because of its inability to actually address the kink in its subject matter. Despite its R rating, the film blandly stutters through its scenes, both making fun of the women suffering with a diagnosis of hysteria and stridently criticizing the injustice. Most telling is that the film's moment of victory—after Charlotte narrowly escapes an unnecessary procedure due to her own diagnosis—is deflated by the postscript explaining doctors didn't stop diagnosing women with hysteria until decades later. What's the point?

  1. About.com
  2. Entertainment
  3. World / Independent Film
  4. Independent Film
  5. Spring 2012
  6. Hysteria - A Review of Tanya Wexler's Hysteria

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