Director: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Rupert Everett
Period pieces often get a bad rap simply by virtue of the fact that so many of them center around stuffy romantic hand-wringing, and so they perpetuate the idea that there exists between the various generations an impenetrable chasm of behavioral dissimilarity and fractured emotional resonance. The utterly delightful “Hysteria,” however, explodes that myth. A sly yet seriously mounted comedy that plays like a post-war Ealing Studios pin-prick satire of British character and society, director Tanya Wexler’s film, about events leading up to the creation of the vibrator, might just be one of the more drolly enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year.
“Hysteria” unfolds in 1880s London. Worn down by doctors who regard his sanitation and “germ theory” advocacy (as in, arguing their existence) as poppycock, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is reconsidering a life in medicine at all when he finally secures an apprenticeship under Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple’s thriving solo practice centers around treating women suffering from nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia and anxiety — afflictions of the female nervous system thought to stem from a disorder of the uterus. His enlightened methods show that such conditions can be ameliorated by relieving tensions within women — manually stimulating them to a certain emotional “reset,” if you will.
The younger, handsome and dexterous Granville proves a hit at this, and his improved lot makes him a worthy suitor of Dalrymple’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). As Granville works himself to numbness (literally), however, he develops more complicated feelings for Emily’s headstrong elder sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a firebrand social reformer who, much to her father’s chagrin, runs a settlement house in London’s East End. After having offended a patient, though, Granville eventually finds his good fortune reversed. It’s at this point that, in a flash of tangential inspiration, Granville teams up with his friend and benefactor, the eccentric and wealthy amateur inventor Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), to tweak a new creation and birth the vibrating electric stimulator. Amazement and good feelings ensue, naturally.
A premiere at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, “Hysteria” represents Wexler’s third feature film, but her first in nearly a dozen years, after taking a break to start a family. There’s no rust, however; the movie serves as a cheeky, fun showcase for her overarching talents. From developing the material with producer Tracey Becker from a fledgling two-page treatment to working with screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer on the script and then overseeing some smart, beautiful production design from Sophie Becher, Wexler has superb instincts for melding potentially wild and over-the-top material with the sort of straightly played societal underpinnings that make the movie’s comedy stand out in relief.
The performances are a delight, too. Dancy brings just the right amount of put-upon yet eager-to-please uncertainty to his role. Jones, so wonderful in “Like Crazy,” and Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, are both engaging, and credibly different romantic foils to Dancy’s character. And in down-shifted, arched-brow form, Everett is a scene-stealing delight.
“Hysteria” for the most part nicely balances the disparate tonalities of its story, rooted in fact but trussed up in formula, with a pinch of screwball banter; Dorothy Parker would dig this movie, most assuredly. A rather cutesy ending, yielding to romantic conventions, dings the movie a bit, but it’s still a delight — a genuine conversation-starter sure to put a smile on one’s face.
For more information, visit www.HysteriaTheFilm.com.
Written by: Brent Simon