By Joan Ellis
How often are you delighted by both the story and the look of a comedy? In grand collaboration, director Tanya Wexler and writer Stephen Dyer have managed to get everything right in Hysteria. Playing it straight with a giant wink in the collective eye, they have turned a true bit of history into a wonderfully wacky movie that is lifted high by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s madcap performance.
In this comedy about the invention of the electro-mechanical vibrator, an inspired cast generates amusement and charm in the stiff formality of Victorian England. Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a handsome young doctor disillusioned by the dismal medical practices in the hospital where he works. He quits in despair. His new job search lands him in the formal townhouse of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), an older physician in dire need of a junior partner who can help him handle his burgeoning practice of grateful women who line up for “pelvic massage,” his personally administered relief from the common diagnosis of the era: hysteria.
The good doctor has two daughters. The proper Emily (Felicity Jones) is an admirable choice as a mate for his handsome new assistant. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) drives her father mad with her passionate devotion to all things progressive. The clever setup presents Emily as a metaphor for aristocratic England – cultured, musical, bright, accepting – and Charlotte as a strident symbol of justice for women and the poor. She will help them all, at any cost.
When finally Charlotte discusses hysteria with Dr. Granville, she reminds him that this condition – for which the doctors of the day prescribed hysterectomy – is instead the result of the fearsome oppression of women who are thought to be ineligible for life on any level outside the house. So the lines are drawn: oppression of women and the poor vs. the world of privilege enjoyed by rich men.
When Dr. Granville and his best friend (Rupert Everett) invent the vibrator, all things become possible. Is the cure for hysteria at hand? Can the settlement house survive its financial woes? Will the good doctor marry Emily or Charlotte? The pleasure in this story lies in the predictability of the outcomes and the charm of all the characters.
The beautiful filming of Dr. Dalrymple’s stately townhouse where his professional and family life unfolds is the perfect backdrop for the lighthearted performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte is a passionate progressive without bitterness. On the run always, she flies in and out of the house annoying her father and enchanting the young doctor. Hugh Dancy’s Dr. Granville is bowled over by the doctor who has revolutionized women’s medicine and by the daughter who is as determined as her father to right a wrong. Beware social injustice when these three pick their targets. And all hail the women who line up for the new treatment for their oppression-induced hysteria. Their expressions are irreverently ecstatic, their cure sublime. Stay for the credits.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.