out of Five
Running time: 100
Hysteria is nicely played and has its fair share of decent moments, but the script struggles to find the right tone and it's hard to escape the feeling that the actual true story might have been a bit more interesting.
What's it all about?
Directed by Tanya Wexler and loosely based on a true story, Hysteria stars Hugh Dancy as priggish Doctor Mortimer Granville, who lands a much-needed job at the practice of hysteria specialist Doctor Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) and discovers that his main job is to administer treatment to Dalrymple's high society female patients (including Anna Chancellor and Gemma Jones), with said treatment consisting of ‘massaging’ their private areas. While recuperating with a severe case of Repetitive Strain Injury as a result of his duties, Mortimer tinkers around with an object built by his electricity-obsessed best friend Edmund (Rupert Everett, sporting an extremely distracting make-up job), decides that it might come in rather handy at work and inadvertently invents the vibrator.
At the same time, Mortimer courts Dalrymple's sensible younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), but he keeps having confusingly charged encounters with Dalrymple's wilder, older daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's passionate about women's rights and runs a foundation for working-class women.
Dancy is fine as Mortimer, though he's a bit of a boring actor to watch; consequently, he's better at portraying Mortimer's priggish side than his passionate side, as there's very little chemistry between him and either of his female co-stars. However, Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific as Charlotte and the film comes alive whenever she's on screen, while there's strong support from Everett, Pryce and Sheridan Smith as Molly, a former prostitute who agrees to help test the new device.
The script has its moments and there are a handful of funny lines (mostly stolen by Everett), but the central joke gets exhausted very early on, leaving the film with nowhere to go; it's also surprisingly coy and appears to wilfully avoid the word ‘masturbation’. Indeed, the script struggles to find the right tone throughout, constantly unsure whether it wants to be a bawdy Carry On-style comedy, a Victorian era romcom or a drama with an important central message.
At any rate, the comedy fails to live up to the film's title, as several moments that are meant to be funny either fall flat or feel anachronistic, such as the suggestion that Edmund basically invents phone sex (Edmund and Molly are quite possibly the least Victorian Victorians ever seen on screen). On top of that, it's impossible to watch the film's excellent closing credits (showcasing a bewildering variety of vibrators through the ages) without wondering whether the actual true story might have been a bit more interesting.
Hysteria is watchable enough, but the script never quite finds the right tone and the end result is neither funny enough to succeed as a comedy nor serious enough to convince as a drama.