Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Hugh Dancy DIRECTED BY
Tanya Wexler SCREENPLAY
Howard Gensler, Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer MPAA RATING
Rated R RUNNING TIME
100 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY
The first thought I had upon leaving the theater after watching The Sony Classics release Hysteria was that I continue to be baffled as to how Rupert Everett isn't a household name. Easily the highlight of the film, though Maggie Gyllenhaal shines in yet another sexual exploration film (after the marvelous Secretary), Everett is a joy in a film that serves mostly as a spirited and fun trifle rather than an actual serious exploration of humanity, sexuality or anything else.
The film opens in 1880 with Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a real life character largely credited with the invention of the "vibrator."
If you don't know what a vibrator is, then I'd suggest you stop reading this review now.
While the film's marketing certainly hypes the vibrator angle, the simple truth is that it's rather secondary within the framework of the film. Dr. Granville starts working with Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose specialty is treating women for mild hysteria by manipulating their genitals with his fingers until they achieve what he refers to as a paroxysm.
You can guess, right?
Mortimer gets the hang of it rather quickly, but finds it rather tedious and demanding on his hand and right arm. With the help of a friend (Rupert Everett), a mechanical device is developed that simplifies the process for all involved. Dalrymple has two daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Emily is a bit of a demure, timid type but Charlotte fancies herself far more of a feminist and outwardly going young woman. Initially, it seems as if Mortimer and Emily are perfectly suited for one another, however, it's not long before our good doctor is creating Victorian sparks with Charlotte ... or that's the theory anyway.
The truth is that both Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal do fine here, though that is seldom the case when the two are together. Dancy has long exhibited an under-appreciated gift for comedy, and this type of film capitalizes upon his quieter demeanor. Likewise, Gyllenhaal brings back to mind here marvelous performance in Secretary even though this film is far less serious and far less important than that film. Gyllenhaal pulls off the British accent fairly nicely, while she also gives Charlotte a delightful spark that makes her immensely watchable even when the script itself lets her down. It's simply too bad that together Dancy and Gyllenhaal have almost no spark, an absence that renders much of the film disappointingly hollow.
Given the film's topic, the naughtiness factor in Hysteria is actually rather slight. It's more the implication of everything that earns the film its R-rating... well, that and the MPAA's long-standing history of ridiculously uneven in its ratings. The script, co-penned by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, is a hit-and-miss affair with an emphasis on dryer, one might say period appropriate, comedy and subtlety. Director Tanya Wexler certainly doesn't mine things here for all the film's potential, though she admirably keeps it all a rather intelligent production despite the potential for a far more market-friendly low-brow effort. The film is said to be based on a true story, really, but a rather fundamental perusal of the central story reveals some rather significant inconsistencies and an absence of a few of the film's key characters beyond Dr. Granville, who actually intended the original device more for muscles and most certainly not for women.
Hysteria is currently on the arthouse circuit and it should be pleasing to those who appreciate period films, though at times it feels like a contemporary rom-com in Victorian clothing. The film's production design is exception, with kudos offered for Sean Bobbitt's camera work, Sophie Becher's spot-on production design and Nic Ede's excellent costume design.