The whole idea of Hysteria sounds fun. The story of the circumstances behind the creation of the vibrator seems to lend itself to the creation of a fun comedy – and Hysteria is a lot of fun. The performances are endearing and enjoyable, and the direction is very well done. But, for whatever reason, it also feels like there was more fun to be had.
Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has spent his first few years as a young doctor moving about between the different hospitals and medical establishments of London, where doctors are still utilizing leeches and reject Granville’s new ideas from the medical journals, like germ theory. After being shut out across the city, he takes a job with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathon Pryce), who’s the leading doctor in the city specializing in women’s health. By women’s health, he means treating “hysteria”, which Dalrymple pretty much uses as a diagnosis for anything troubling a woman of any age or marriage status. As for the actual treatment, well, the less said the better, but suffice it to say, the ladies enjoy themselves a great deal, even if standard medical belief at the time was that they weren’t. Granville might not be doing exactly what he wants, but he has a job and an opportunity for a future. Dalrymple has two daughters: the proper, intellectually curious Emily (Felicity Jones), and high-spirited Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dalrymple sees Granville as the future of his practice, if not a future son-in-law. Charlotte’s a mystery to both men: she’s a suffragette who spends her time running a settlement house far away from her father’s ritzy practice, seemingly rejecting the privileged life that could be hers. Soon, however, a repetitive stress injury causes major problems for Granville, and he finds himself unable to work. With the help of a patron and friend Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), he creates a device capable of saving his career, just as he starts to reevaluate his choice of sister, especially as Charlotte tries to get him to explore more traditional medical work at the settlement house. As her crusading tendencies suddenly get the best of her, Granville soon has to choose which path he wants to take.
Dancy is pretty winning in a role that would have been played by Hugh Grant 20 years ago. There is charming befuddlement to be had, but he also has some serious scenes to play, and he’s more than believable. Gyllenhaal also stands out. As an actress who seems to engender pretty stark feelings in many moviegoers, she’s enjoyable to watch, especially as we get to know her character a little better, beyond the defiant young woman we see early on. There also, obviously, is a lot of humor to be had, mostly the physical comedy revolving around the “treatment” administered by Dancy and Pryce, as well as the aforementioned charming befuddlement.
Director Tanya Wexler nimbly moves the story along, sidestepping several potential trouble spots where lesser work might have led to the film getting dragged down in sentimentality. While class lines are drawn distinctly, she’s also careful to show good and bad on both sides of the class divide; the upper crust aren’t all monsters, the poor not all saints.
There are, however, a few difficulties. Everett seems like he’s come in from some other project entirely, and his role as the upper class techno-dilettante who supports Granville doesn’t seem to fit the grounded nature of much of the rest of the plot. The characterization of Emily is inconsistent throughout. In the first act, as a love match seems to have been found, she’s intellectually inquisitive (even if one of her fields of study, phrenology, Granville knows to be quackery) and seems a joy to be around. Perhaps to try and draw more of a distinction between Emily and Charlotte, these aspects of Jones’ character are suddenly in short supply come the second and third acts, as if she were another person altogether from the one we originally came to know. Pryce’s character is also a little broadly drawn, as are a few of the characters Charlotte encounters at the settlement house.
But, on the whole, Hysteria does provide a lot of fun for the audience. The performances are, on the whole, admirable, as is the storytelling. The second the “treatments” begin, both of the manual and electrical types, the audience can count on a good, bawdy time.