By Jessica Delfanti | May 17, 2012
Director: Tanya Wexler
Writers: Stephen Dyer, Jonah Lisa Dyer
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce
One of history’s greatest anti-feminist myths has to do with hysteria, the catch all medical term once used to describe “erratic” female behavior such as anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, enthusiasm, and sexual dissatisfaction. Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria tackles the subject with a study of the invention that allegedly helped treat the disorder: the vibrator. Set in the Victorian era, Hysteria follows the journey of Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), an aspiring young doctor who finds himself employed in a lucrative hysteria treatment office run by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Granville discovers that the popular office supplies a unique service: treatment of the disorder through sexual stimulation. As he struggles to succeed in his new position, he juggles interactions with Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters: the proper Emily (Felicity Jones) and the inflammatory Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Charlotte appeals to his desire to actually help people rather than supporting the fabricated concept of hysteria, while Emily represents a lucrative future supporting existing gender roles and societal norms.
While the concept of the film seems to indicate a smart, political, and charming narrative with a fantastic cast, the film fails to pull all of its elements together to deliver. Too much seems to rely on the very simple gimmick of it being a film about–gasp–inventing a vibrator! In fact, the vibrator element of the film occupies only a small portion, and those scenes are primarily supported by Granville’s dear friend, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe. The Lord is played by Ruper Everett, whose face is so distractingly changed that the filmmaker often makes him perform from offscreen or shoots him behind other objects. As a result, scenes including Everett and the haphazard invention of the vibrator feel almost tacked on, failing to take the spotlight in a film that hinges upon their inclusion.
This clumsy concept is then paired with a forced romance that is not supported by the actors’ chemistry or clever writing. While Gyllenhaal is certainly the film’s main draw, acting her passionate scenes with a desperate and believable vigor, even she fails to successfully engage the viewers in the superficial romance.
In addition to these core failures, the film attempts to push a feminist agenda through examination of the ridiculous way that the term hysteria was used to control women in the Victorian era. However, a simple study of a historical period, layered with phoney attempts at not-so-biting humor, is not enough to deliver a convincing thesis or insight. Instead, the political nature of the film feels badly researched and shallow.
As a romantic comedy, the film may garner a passable grade due to Gyllenhaal’s performance and the freshness of Dancy’s eager doctor, but any viewer with standards will find that Hysteria, a film about excitement and satisfaction, is surprisingly disappointing and boring.