Directed by Tanya Wexler
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Sheridan Smith, Rupert Everett
A film about the invention of the vibrator, “Hysteria” may seem like a project tailor-made for female lead Maggie Gyllenhaal, a proven savant in sexualized roles—as a BDSM-loving subordinate in Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” and as a promiscuous gold-digger in dry ensemble comedy “Happy Endings." But if you’re looking for “Hysteria” to push Gyllenhaal to new limits of, er, stimulation then allay those expectations; her fleety Charlotte Dalrymple is held in tepid admiration by male onlookers rather than fetishized, a character about as liberal as Ali MacGraw’s in “Love Story” was anti-establishment.
“Hysteria” is barely about Dalrymple anyway; it's much more concerned with the story of Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a budding physician serving under the watchful eye of Charlotte’s doctor-father. Involved in the stimulating massage therapy designed to give female patients relief through orgasm, Granville comes up with an instrument capable of replicating that sensation and revolutionizing the practices of sex in the process. While his breakthrough initially ruffles feathers among the more conservative members of London’s Hippocratic elite, he tempers the grouchy obstinacy of Dalrymple Snr. (Jonathan Pryce), with whom he affiliates himself both professionally and personally. An understudy and guest in the Dalrymple household, Granville begins to court his boss' youngest, Emily (Felicity Jones), a considerably meeker prospect than Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte.
This 1880s-set tale recalls the Freudian politics of David Cronenberg’s recent “A Dangerous Method,” but the results are hardly as jaw-jutting (“Hysteria” purposefully downplays its racy topic by making tongue-in-cheek humor a chief concern during its ethical face-offs between the old and new generations of medical science). Scribe Stephen Dyer opts for the route “The King’s Speech” may well have taken had it tempered its angsty royal hangups with more pandering middle-class humor. With well-to-do women crying “Tallyho!” at sexual climax and young maids being brought out of their reserved servitude by a ‘happy ending,’ much of “Hysteria” is gunning for chortles, leaving it completely disposable.
But “Hysteria” does at least offers the sensitive notion that there were men concerned with helping women achieve pleasure—pioneering an instrument which has the potential to render the phallus redundant—even in a Victorian era where female sexuality was treated as sinister and perverse. A winsome Hugh Dancy offers a pleasant, well-meaning buffer against all the sordid tales of masturbation, while Gyllenhaal tries her utmost to morph into Emma Thompson, ably imitating effortless swooping Estuary English tones and an all-knowing glare. The tentative central romance between bumbling sap and would-be Jane Austen heroine remains admirably unforced, the ease with which it unfurls free from the commonplace meanderings of most literary romances between inherently noble folk. But nevertheless this a limp union of people barely willing to shed grace through rebellion.
Read the rest of this review at InRO