BY DAYNA PAPALEO
(R), directed by Tanya Wexler
All you ladies who’ve been accused of insanity upon voicing an opinion that doesn’t set well with the nearest man can take comfort in the fact that you’re part of a long, ignorant tradition of wholesale dismissal. Not so very long ago the (largely male) medical establishment attributed things like discontentment, anxiety, and moodiness to hysteria, caused by a wayward uterus. This malady could be easily — if tediously — treated through what was euphemistically called pelvic massage. Essentially a doctor would manually bring his patient to climax, at which time the afflicted woman would feel a hell of a lot better. A medical miracle!
Tanya Wexler’s new comedy “Hysteria” is not about how doctors finally realized that the uterus doesn’t actually wander around a woman’s body and make trouble; instead, it tells of how Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, “Our Idiot Brother”) found an efficient way to treat most of Victorian London’s female population without giving himself carpal tunnel syndrome. When we first meet Granville, the forward-thinking young doctor is unsuccessfully arguing the merits of the newfangled germ theory with his leech-loving superior, a rift that eventually leads to Granville’s new position giving a hand (haw haw!) to Dr. Dalrymple (the great character actor Jonathan Pryce) in his successful practice treating women against “a plague of our time.”
When Granville isn’t dutifully rubbing out care to the well-dressed women with their legs in fancy, velvet-draped stirrups, he’s chastely wooing Dr. Dalrymple’s toothy younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”) or butting heads with her progressive older sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has shunned the lap of luxury to volunteer at a settlement house for the less-fortunate. But it’s through his dealings with his wealthy, rakish friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett, how we’ve missed your suspiciously tight face) that Granville happens upon his fame and fortune through the invention of a motorized feather duster that has been modified for more orgasmic purposes.
“Hysteria” is frustratingly devoid of any compelling conflict; the plot hinges upon which Dalrymple sister Granville will fall for (duh) as well as whether Charlotte will be institutionalized and given a hysterectomy in order to alleviate her anti-patriarchal feelings along with her selfless Christian charity. The truth-based yet predictable script, by the husband-and-wife team of Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, doesn’t really say anything terribly revelatory about the state of male-female relationships, merely imparting some interesting trivia about the genesis of the vibrator and trying to shock in a giggly way. Oh, and that R rating? Utter hogwash.
There are, however, fleeting pleasures to be found in the film’s excellent performances, as a top-tier cast classes up the relatively unworthy script. The adorably feisty Gyllenhaal rocks a steadfast British accent, while Pryce, Jones, and especially Dancy make the best of their thankless stock characters. And all kinds of praise to the scene-stealing Everett, twinkle in eye and tongue firmly in cheek as the idle-rich and seemingly out hedonist obsessed with technology, much to the literal delight of future generations of women, hysterical and otherwise.