Set against a Victorian era backdrop where bleeding by leeches was still a medical orthodoxy and the bandaging of wounds considered experimental, the British film Hysteria explores the “disorder” of the same name. That is if looking in a funhouse mirror is somehow analogous to exploring. For Hysteria takes matters of scores of women with an “overactive uterus” and how they were impassively treated to “vulgar massage” until achieving a satisfactory “paroxysm” and manages to do so without a hint of sexuality while playing the cutie angle to the hilt. Any talk of sexuality was also politely left out of the doctor-patient discourse during these hush-hush times.
Earnestness here is saved for the two main characters. Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Fancy) unsuccessfully tries to enlighten his resistant superiors on the newly scientific discovery of germs. Equally sincere is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple, incipient feminist and social rebel, who is the daughter of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who built up a handsome practice with this hysteria business. After Hugh takes up with Pryce and assists him in the massages, Hugh and Maggie fight a lot—a surefire sign they’ll probably be together by movie’s end even though Hugh is designated as a husband-to-be for Pryce’s other prim and proper daughter (Felicity Jones). Pryce tries to block every move Maggie makes toward helping the poor while Dancy and Jones stand around gazing at each other while uttering fluffery. Everyone except Maggie is overdressed.
Oh, there’s also the little matter of Granville “inventing” the vibrator to supplant all this silly massage stuff (both doctors suffer from carpal tunnel—seriously) although it’s actually his roommate (the always droll Rupert Everett) who gives him the idea, which started out as a feather-duster.
Gyllenhaal shines, Dancy and Jones do their dopey inhibited-as-churchmice thing, and Everett looks like he’s in disguise, sporting a very uncharacteristic beard. Director Tanya Wexler might have thought of hiding, too, for all the play-it-safe twaddling she puts the audience through on her way to abruptly jumping to a forced conclusion that strives to throw in the serious plight of the Victorian woman in a changing society like a dash of afterthought.
Finally, in the faltering hands of Doctors Pryce and Dancy, sex was never so mishandled—either their patient’s or the film’s. You know it to be so after one of Dancy’s patients screams “Tally-Ho” after an especially good paroxysm, and another, upon trying the newfangled vibrator, bellows into a full blown aria.
5.5 Tally-Ho’s (Out of 10)