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‘Hysteria’ could use more focus, but manages to entertain nevertheless


Directed by Tanya Wexler

Written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer

England, 2011

People love historical pieces, especially those which directly or sometimes indirectly relate to a major events in which shape the story of mankind. Films about the word wars, films about Margaret Thatcher, films about the waring states in ancient China, a film about Apollo 13, a movie about Facebook (and they said it would never work!)…It is continuously fascinating to see, in as compelling a medium as film, what has been and how said events or people influenced the course of history. There are, however, incidents and epiphanies which on the surface appear trivial but in truth exercised impressive reverberations on the course of human behaviour. Take, for instance the inimitable vibrator, the single highest selling sex toy ever. Sex in of itself sells incredibly well, hence when once speaks of the vibrator, one is on the topic of something truly special. Director Tanya Wexler reveals to the audience, with a dash of the whimsy, where the vibrator originated from in her latest film, Hysteria.

London, 1880. Some woman, those clearly dissatisfied with their lot in life, one which constricts their say in manners of society, politics and economics. When compared to their male compatriots, they are still second-class subjects to her Majesty. The medical field, naturally dominated by a male perspective at this time in history, is currently wrestling with what it describes as the curiously frustrating case of female hysteria. Audiences seeing Wexler’s picture today know that hysteria, whether at its most basic or dangerous levels, can affect anyone regardless of sex. Back in the late 19th century however, such a diagnostic was reserved for any woman who cried foul about her lot in life, showing signs of emotional wear and tear against the constant struggle either for equal footing alongside men or to satisfy them. Enter doctors Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). The latter is well established in the private sector, offering comfort and relief to women who ‘suffer’ from hysteria by…pleasuring them in that famous sweet spot. The former is a young, energetic, dedicated man who wants nothing more than to offer the best help to patients, regardless of class. Recently fired from yet another hospital where his new-age methods were shunned, he is hired by the ageing Dr. Dalrymple to become second in command in his office, and possibly marry one of his two daughters, the very old-English and subordinate Emily (Felicity Jones). However, it is his other daughter, the free-spirited, politically active Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is apparently the real cause for concern.

‘When it comes to the British, even what is most vulgar is often masked with an unparalleled air of sophistication…’

For her latest endeavour, director Tanya Wexler brings together a wide variety of talents, from England and elsewhere, and with them offers audiences a light natured peek into the battle of the sexes in late 19th century England. Not only is the talented cast originally from different places, so are the themes and plotlines within the world of the film multifaceted, each functioning on different levels and supporting (or not) the film in their own ways. Wexler, as director, is in essence performing a difficult balancing act and in the process attempts to give the viewers as much as possible, a goal which, even though the picture on the whole is fun for its sense of whimsy, does not consistently bear fruit.

Seeing Hysteria unfold, one arrives at the conclusion that the film can be viewed as a mishmash of two disparate film genres. The British, stereotypically known for being uptight and prudish, have always had a special way of delving into more raunchy comedic territory without actually resorting to overtly raunchy jokes. The vulgarity exists, but never in plain sight as would be the case in films from almost any other nation. When it comes to the British, even what is most vulgar is often masked with an unparalleled air of sophistication which serves to soften the blow despite that everyone in the audience knows perfectly well what the joke is about. The running joke in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria is that doctors Granville and Dalrymple are pleasuring women who report to the office as feeling hysterical and stressed out. The doctors lube up with some fine oils and… go about their business. The subject itself is quite provocative, even by today’s standards. Executed without the veneer of English upper class prudishness, and the joke is the equivalent of what the hundreds of R-rated Hollywood comedies deliver year in and year out, perfectly on par with whatever audacious antics occur in the latest American Pie instalment or a Judd Appatow produced and directed film. The nature of the joke is the same, yet when decorated as it is in Hysteria, more is left to the imagination, not to mention that more is also demanded of the actors to hit home the funny moments. For those who enjoy this style of comedy, Wexler’s film is incredibly entertaining.

Certainly a large portion of the film’s success rests with the performances. Lines are delivered in an English language so few today utter. The language is not so old as to sound foreign to modern audiences, yet has a pleasant, posh and proper old time flavour to it. The cast delivers the dialogue with delightful vim and verve. Hugh Dancy’s Mortimer Granville is a man who struggles with the idealism which drives him to help just about anybody in need, yet during his time working under the wing of Dr. Dalrymple Mortimer adopts a slightly different opinion on what his career can and perhaps should be (private practice and the exclusivity that comes along with such territory). Dancy is more than capable of proving the requisite English charm and wit, all the while exuding the sort of youthful determinism required of the character. Additionally, the man knows how to deliver funny line or offer a semi-comical look around a room with sheepishly. Much of the same can be said of Jonathan Pryce, an actor who almost exclusively gives strong performances and yet does not receive as much work as he should. Here his paternalistic attitude towards his daughters and the terrific pride with which he goes about his profession and balanced with some intelligent quips. Felicity does not play a major role, save for some comical scenes during which she espouses the supposed virtues of phrenology (obviously before it was understood to be nothing more than hogwash), although Maggie Gyllenhaal is, in fact, given a lot of material to chew on. She is the most passionately driven character in the entire film, primarily because hers is engaged in the most difficult fight. Some may bemoan yet another North America attempting to emulate a British accent, although Gyllenhaal does sound rather convincing.

‘Certainly a large portion of the film’s success rests with the performances… The cast delivers the dialogue with delightful vim and verve.’

Perhaps the only problem with her character is a problem which stems from the overall script per say. More specifically, there are stretches in the film when it feels as though what requires more in depth character interactions to hone in the themes is left underwritten, whereas those segments which would benefit from a certain swiftness in story development feel overwritten. There are two subplots where each of these individual sub themes and plots are afflicted by the aforementioned handicaps. One is in the connection between the socio-political strife experienced by women at this time and the actual professional medical treatment offered by doctors Granville and Dalrymple. There are fleeting moments when the Charlotte character, via some didactic dialogue, will try to make the connection between the two, and even though it works on certain levels and on some specific occasions, by the picture’s end it feels like the decision to link those two ideas could have been worked on a little bit more, just to make that connection feel more organic and comprehensive. Truth be told, despite however many times Charlotte will decry the lot of the late 19th century English woman, the film’s conclusion makes one believe that the most important story driven element was, after all, the invention of the vibrator as opposed to any meaningful political statement. Admittedly cute, but a not as satisfactory as it otherwise could have been. Conversely, is also the issue of the climax, which involves Charlotte behaving in a manner authorities deem hysterical (for lack of a better term) and worthy of a trip to the mental institute, followed by a laboriously written courtroom drama scene which somehow feels out of place with the remainder of picture. It is almost as though Wexler and the screenwriters suddenly felt obligated to raise the intensity level for the purpose of injecting even more drama than already existed and in a manner that does not fully jive with the sort of scenes the audience has been watching for the better part of 90 minutes at that stage in the film.

However one might applaud or shun Hysteria‘s strategy employed in combining the story of the birth of the vibrator and the plight of the late 19th century British woman, the film remains quite funny, filled with pithy lines and fine comedic performances. Overall, Tanya Wexler delivers a film that, while it could have been more biting, should serve as some light summer fun for movie goers.

-Edgar Chaput