The sexuality of women has been a trope of storytelling, medical science and entertainment since the times of Ancient Greece when Hippocrates first defined “hysteria” as a disorder of the wandering womb. Up until 1952, in fact, the condition was largely thought to plague nearly all women with symptoms the ranged from violent paroxysms to simple moodiness. In the late 19th century, the invention of the electromechanical vibrator proved revolutionary in alleviating this most delicate of female problems. And it is this moment in history which director Tanya Wexler focuses on in her new romantic comedy, “Hysteria.”
The movie opens on the streets of Victorian London. For a moment, this could be a scene out of a Merchant-Ivory film. The romance of the horse-drawn carriages, the grandeur of the sophisticated fashion and the charm of the cobblestone streets are all present in lush hues and warm tones. Then, a man steps in horse shit. For a moment, it seems this film will steer clear of sentimentality. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) appears next in a setting more reminiscent of Dickens’ London. Granville is a physician at Westminster Hospital where, amid the deplorably unsanitary conditions and lack of proper medical equipment, he works for a man who believes “germ theory is poppycock.” Moments later, Granville is fired.
After a tedious search for new employment and an even more tedious-to-watch montage of him doing so, Mortimer Granville finds a position at Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s (played by the always hilarious Jonathan Pryce) special practice in women’s medicine. In other words, he fingers women for money. Soon, Granville becomes the star doctor, earning the affection of Dalrymple’s innocent daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), while earning the ire of his other, more radically feminist daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Thus, the romantic element is introduced and the comedy arrives, in small but able doses, from Rupert Everett as Mortimer’s friend and benefactor.
Sadly, for all the talk of passion and sex, there’s nothing passionate or even remotely hysterical about “Hysteria.” As the eventual coupling of the film, Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal have as sterile and lackluster a chemistry as the medical instruments utilized by Granville. And despite Gyllenhaals’ best efforts to stimulate some excitement with her fiery yearnings for progressive social reform, the rest of the cast, and the movie in general, fall flat in comparison. Though there are a few laughs earned, mostly because the visuals of stuffy doctors prompting orgasms are hilarious, little else is achieved and the result? Mediocrity.
There’s a crucial scene somewhere around the third act of ‘Hysteria’ that aptly captures the film’s effect. Mortimer Granville is treating a female patient — toiling along rhythmically with a hand strained due to overuse. For nearly an hour, Granville works at his job, trying in vain to elicit the desired outcome. He fails. She never reaches completion and walks away frustrated. The same can be said of Wexler’s entire film. It plods along at a moderate pace, hits all the right spots, builds up to the finale, but never reaches a satisfying climax.