Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce, Gemma Jones, Anna Chancellor
A romantic comedy about the invention of the world's first vibrator, as Dr. Mortimer Granville joins a private practice that gives very special attention to women suffering from "hysteria".
Surely one for which the phrase "Victorian romp" was invented, Hysteria tracks the real-life invention of the world's first vibrator - by way of English stiff-upper-lip-ism, flighty feminism and a very convincing English accent from Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film opens on the currently omnipresent Hugh Dancy as Mortimer Granville, ostensibly a surgeon desperate for Victorian London to update its methods by acknowledging things like "germs" and "hand-washing".
But once he is taken into private practice by Jonathan Pryce's Dr. Dalrymple, he quickly succumbs to a severe case of the Hugh Grants, stuttering and gasping his way through much of the steamier sections. Not that the steamy sections are in fact that steamy, as the most we get to see is a pair of ankles propped up on stirrups and the increasingly reddening face of Madame Pomfrey from Harry Potter (such is the English casting pool). The women of London, you see, are suffering from "hysteria" - a sort of catch-all term to describe anything that women might encounter, from menopause to depression to the merest sexual desire.
And how do you cure "hysteria"? Well with a little bit of oil, some digital dexterity, and the very real risk of repetitive strain injury. Paired with this fairly rote bit of Carry On storylining, we have Granville's burgeoning romance with Dalrymple's phrenology-enthused daughter Emily, played with minimal invention by Felicity Jones. In fact, Emily as a character and Jones as an actress are imbued with such average charm and spark that once Gyllenhaal arrives as the second daughter - blustering, charitable, feminist Charlotte - it descends into some romantic clock-watching as we wait for our brave doctor to wake up and smell the vagina.
Gyllenhaal does some great work with the part, and her English accent veers just enough from traditional to give it impressive realism, but it's a pity that between Dancy, Jones and Pryce she still doesn't get a truly great sparring partner. Her storyline, the attempt to keep a children's shelter open in the face of increasing societal pressure and a lack of funds, dovetails (though a little too neatly) with the malady of hysteria, and therefore vibrators.
But even near its climax the film can't get away from the fact that it exists in a "safe space" - a world of double entendres and arched eyebrows, where we know nothing bad can happen to our characters. It robs the drama of its drama, and what should be a higher level of comedy doesn't quite replace it. Overall, "Hysteria" is some perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, risque in the same way your grandmother swearing is, and while Gyllenhaal is a bright spark it doesn't quite justify its characters or its place in history.
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