By Richard von Busack
You’d love to applaud Hysteria (Hysteria tickets and showtimes here) for the way it encourages female pleasure. But Tanya Wexler’s historical farce is so deeply arch and self-congratulatory, it hardly even allows its audience a few mild civilized chuckles. There is some talent here, mostly squandered. Jonathan Pryce steals his scenes as a pompous Victorian doctor who treats his patients…with a method most of us learned at about age 13 1/2.
It’s Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s practice to manipulate the genitals of his customers. It’s a standard procedure to relieve his patients—well-off, middle-aged women—of abdominal discomfort, unwanted thoughts, depression and every other symptom indicated by the term “hysteria”.
Dr. Mortimer Granville (the handsome, vacant Hugh Dancy) joins Dalrymple’s practice, and starts keeping the company of the doctor’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, of the well-bred overbite); she is an amateur phrenologist who says things like “your thrombus is so rigid and jutting.”
Yet Granville is disturbed by the political convictions of Emily’s sister Charlotte (a robustly miscast, ultimately aggravating Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has no patience with the problems of these well-off bored ladies.
Mortimer is good at his task, arraying the fashionable women on a table, with a fancy, fringed red velvet curtain and a brass railed frame over their exposed parts. Sadly, the poor Mortimer falls victim to carpal tunnel from wanking all of these dames, and has to wear a leather brace on his wrist like Peter Lorre in Mad Love. That’s when his wealthy inventor friend Edmund (Rupert Everett, drawling most of his lines, lolling on a divan) comes up with a startling new invention.
An actress who can’t do a good comedy orgasm scene has no place in the cinema. Certainly there are some low comedy sequences in Hysteria that fly. Sexy toast-of-the-East-End type Sheridan Smith (above) mugs pleasurably, playing a painted and debauched maid nicknamed “Molly the Lolly.” Georgie Glen’s shriek of “Tally-ho!” at the capital moment is rich, particularly since she’s wearing her Scottish bonnet all through the experience.
Malcolm Rennie exemplifies Hysteria’s problems; he comes in to a fancy engagement party as Lord St. John-Smythe, in evening clothes and huge Dundreary whiskers; he’s full-bellied and there’s a moist and fraudulent gleam in his eye, like the Charles Coburn of The Lady Eve or Gentleman Prefer Blondes. I didn’t recall seeing this actor before, but Rennie’s credits show a long line of judges and constables. He was the judge forced to free Andrew Scott’s sensationally evil Moriarity in the BBC’s Sherlock episode "The Reichenbach Fall". Here, as his Lordship, he looks satisfyingly dubious, and he’s given a few moments of introduction, a comedic set-up. What’s Rennie going to bring to this movie? Nothing, except a frowned line: “I despise business!”. He’s the symbol of Hysteria, with its number of actors and actresses, all dressed up with no place to go.
Hysteria does have a point, which makes it all the sadder that the film doesn’t really work. In Victorian London, as historian Stephen Marcus noted, doctors denied the existence of orgasm in women…and meanwhile, thousands of women in London’s numerous brothels were taught to pretend to have them.
Director Wexler (Haskell’s niece) seems caught in the problem of a film addressing twin evils: poverty and the second-class status of women. It’s as if she’s unable to take the second one seriously. She can’t visualize the sadness of lonely women enough to make their moments of happiness truly ticklish.