Hysteria Directed by: Tanya Wexler Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: May 25, 2012 (Chicago)
PLOT: A young scientist in 1880s London who practices an unorthodox method to treating women for their hysteria falls for his mentor's (Pryce) daughters (Jones and Gyllenhaal).
WHO'S IT FOR?: Though I said to Tanya Wexler's face that I could watch this movie with my mom, I'm actually going to retract that. There are a few parts of this movie about doctors touching ladies that don't lend itself to non-awkward mom viewing. However, I'm sure people who giggle at nudity in New Yorker cartoons might get a classy yuk out of Hysteria.
Finally, a movie about getting to third base for members of Jane Austen book clubs.
Catching period drama fans at a time when trips to "Downton Abbey" gets their British sensibilities all hot and bothered, Hysteria is a classy and a bit sassy movie about a nutty time for science. In a manner that garners disbelieving guffaws more than big laughs, this comedy shows a quaint portrayal of when the line between naiveté and ignorance was thin. Because of such, quaint men like Mortimer Granville had to massage lady parts (usually older lady's parts) to release them of their "hysteria" (that is, until next week's appointment). Veiled by a curtain with women looking faint as ever, we get to see them whoop and holler at the release of their mental "problems" while tool-sheds like Granville or his boss Dr. Dalrymple assign oblivious higher meaning to such actions. Push comes to massive hand cramps, and the vibrator is eventually born.
Aside from not being able to take its comedy beyond the intensity level of "amusing," Hysteria also fails to follow through with showing a thorough picture of this strange chapter in medical treatment. The film leaves many distracting questions that make its entire concept feel incomplete: How much did the treated women honestly subscribe to the idea of "hysteria"? How many of them were in it simply for the free intimacy? And were husbands seriously never doing anything like that at home, for any of these women?
When focused on the love triangle between Mortimer and Dalrymple's daughters, Hysteria becomes a typical story of choosing the old school life and that of the new school, with Felicity Jones playing an uptight younger woman who is bound to turn into the dusty old ladies that Mortimer massages every day, and Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the free spirit who is written off by her father as rambunctious. This concept is then added on by the plot involving Granville's practice, which makes Hysteria a little special in comparison to its similar stories, but still doesn't guarantee anything great.
Maggie Gyllenhaal gives Hysteria its disposition as Charlotte, a woman who doesn't play by the starchy rules of the men and women her uptight uber-professional doctor father is associated with. She's got an attitude, but she's also a woman of the people, because she runs a little community for people of need. Also, when someone insults her, she feels free enough to crack them in the face.
For the most part Gyllenhaal's character is a fun counter of realism to the niceties seen by sister Emily (Jones) and Mortimer, but the third act makes an over-dramatic turn with her character, which involves a courthouse and a big speech. This moment isn't entirely lost to the cliché (because it does say some things about this movie's title concept), but it's one that makes her smell even more like a mouthpiece for the film. Especially when one learns the truth about her existence, her character feels like a forced component for this story, albeit one with good intentions.
Though Gyllenhaal certainly brings spunk to the casting, there is no better fit here than Hugh Dancy. With his disarming and earnest charm, he's an excellent pick to play a tool, especially one in the middle of such a wild scenario. This is a determined professional who seriously believes in what he is doing, even when a woman like Charlotte tells him to his face about the truth. With such innocent naiveté, he embodies the scientific sentiment of the time, providing a good scope of how even those who thought they were "progressive" (this guy actually believes in germs) were still behind the intellectual wagon.
Adding to the strong period aesthetics of the movie are its costumes and its score, the latter being simply beautiful. This is one recurring string melody that ranks with some of the best I've heard this year. Thankfully, it's heard throughout the film.
Hysteria lets viewers have a silly story of class with an odd yet historical sexual component, but the fancy silk curtain is indeed over it. Take out all of the scenes in which old ladies are having orgasms in the face of a dude named "Mortimer Granville," and you're left with a quaint and theatrical period drama with sunny strolls, heavy accents, and fancy dinners. Hysteria only reaches a perverse peak when it shows two ducks f*ckin'.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10