Film review: ‘Hysteria’ Mischievous But Muddled Movie

Hysteria 1Hysteria makes welcome mischief with rigid Victorian mores, but its muddled tale leaves one wondering about focus. Is it a ribald farce, a more refined romantic comedy or a sly dramatic treatise on sexism?

It’s understandable if director Tanya Wexler and husband-and-wife scriptwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer want this film to be all those things and more. The trouble is that despite their lofty ambitions and a top-flight cast Hysteria is unable to find its center. That leaves the movie-going head spinning just like, uh, a certain device developed during the course of the feature.

Hugh Dancy (The Big C on TV; Adam and Martha Marcy May Marlene among several film credits) plays Mortimer Granville, an idealistic young doctor who’s appalled by the still-medieval medical treatments many of his senior colleagues practice in 1880s London. Granville fears his career won’t be meaningful until he meets Dr. Robert Dalrymple (the ever-reliable Jonathan Pryce), a physician who has a lucrative practice treating women suffering from the condition known as hysteria.

Hysteria 4And what is that condition precisely? Doctors like Dalrymple have their definitions, but his feisty feminist-before-the-term-was-coined daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar-nominated for Crazy Heart) is closest to the mark when she calls the diagnosis a “catch-all” that covers everything from “insomnia to toothache.”

Granville learns Dalrymple’s hysteria treatment, which involves finger stimulation of a certain sensitive part of female anatomy. The women they treat greatly appreciate their efforts, and the practice becomes so successful that Granville eventually strains the hand he uses to administer the cure.

This puts his job, and his engagement to Dalrymple’s other daughter, the sweet-natured Emily (played with winning charm by Felicity Jones), in jeopardy. It’s then his rich and dissolute pal Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett in yet another charming-rogue role) comes to his rescue: Edmund loves to tinker with all things electric, and lately he’s been working on a revolving feather duster that’s not functioning as he’d hoped. Granville accidentally discovers a way it will perform, and one of the world’s best known intimate devices is born.

Hysteria 5Hysteria is most appealing when it scores some points against prudery; after all, deflating a stuffed shirt (or blouse) is a type of humor Brits enjoy and do well. And bits like having a patient sing an aria from La Traviata after she’s introduced to what we now know as a vibrator are also good for some chuckles.

But the budding love between Granville and Charlotte (which is attended by growing social-reform awareness), as well as a serious subplot involving a criminal infraction, send us reeling in other directions. It’s almost as if the filmmakers said, “Let’s cram as much as we can into an hour-and-a-half.” The result is a film that would have been stronger with less ambition.

That’s not to say the fine actors in this film don’t give it their best shot. Gyllenhaal lights up every scene she’s in; Dancy is a befuddled but engaging presence; Pryce, Jones, Everett, Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras) and others provide sharp support.

Hysteria 3A special nod goes to Sheridan Smith, who makes her feature film debut as the prostitute-turned-maid Molly. Smith’s not well known in the US but she’s justifiably a star of stage (a two-time Olivier Award winner who will appear in the title role of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic this September) and the small screen (Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey) in the UK. She does some excellent work in this film, and hopefully we’ll now see more of her on the big screen.

Production designer Sophie Becher and costumer Nic Ede dress Luxembourg locations and the actors to period perfection; cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frames it convincingly. Yes, the production values and performances in Hysteria are strong; but even the best designs and acting can be undermined by a scattered script.

Hysteria 7

 

 

 

Hysteria (www.hysteriathefilm.com) opens today (Friday, June 15) in the Nashville area at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Green Hills Village Dr. (www.regmovies.com) and the Carmike Thoroughbred 20, 633 Frazier Dr. in Franklin (www.carmike.com). Rated R for sexual content, 95 min. Directed by Tanya Wexler; written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer from an original story by Howard Gensler. Starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones and Malcolm Rennie.

*All pictures by Liam Daniel and Ricardo Vaz Palma courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).