'Hysteria' Doesn't Satisfy
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Caveat emptor if you're the sort of moviegoer who makes decisions based on trailers: While the invention of the electrically powered vibrator is a central event in the new movie "Hysteria," it is not the central event of the movie, and it doesn't even happen until a little over an hour into the 100-minute picture. Which isn't to say that you don't get a fair amount of saucy what-do-women-want-down-there humor throughout. But the movie is neither a full-out nudge-nudge, wink-wink farce nor an entirely high-minded historical treatise on the oppression and potential liberation of women in Victorian England. Just as with Certs' aspiring to be both a breath mint and a candy mint, so, too, does "Hysteria" want to be those two things described above, simultaneously. What it winds up being is kind of mushy. Not actively unpleasant to sit through for the most part, but not particularly engaging or illuminating or charming.
The picture begins with energetic Hugh Dancy's idealistic young London medico Mortimer Granville applying for a position with the well-known patrician physician Robert Dalrymple (a tamped-down Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple has a rich practice treating sufferers of the film's title condition, an in fact nonexistent syndrome that wasn't taken out of the medical books until 1952. Tense, dissatisfied women from the highest walks of life come to Dalrymple for relief via "vulvic massage," administered, of course in a very clinical and proper way and with nary a hint that a male might ever be reciprocally enticed by a female's arousal and release. This being Victorian England and all.
All oiled up and ready to go, Granville is welcomed into Dalrymple's practice and home, where he meets Dalrymple's two daughters: the very proper Emily (Felicity Jones), who studies Chopin and phrenology, and the older and ever-more-feisty Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who looks after a homeless shelter-cum-commune and flounces about saying things like, "There's a revolution afoot! Women will not rest until we are welcomed in the universities, the professions and the voting booths!" and "Socialism at its heart is nothing more than a group pulling together." Soon, although he's loath to admit it, least of all to himself, Granville is enmeshed in a dilemma straight out of "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?," the classic oldie by the Lovin' Spoonful. The bit about the older sister, look it up.
But there's also the matter of his crushing workload, and the toll it's taking on his poor hand. One morning he fails to provide satisfaction to a demanding opera singer, and gets to sheepishly say to a roomful of expectant patients, "This has never happened to me before!" Get it? You see, because it's an impotence joke, only it relates to his hand. Anyway, if that's the kind of naughty humor you get a kick out of, this picture's chock-full of it. Oy.
Granville's failure results in professional chastisement, and then ... At the home of his mentor, played by a near-unrecognizable Rupert Everett, Granville idly toys with a prototype of an electric feather-duster his pal has been developing of an idle hour, and then it hits him. The vibrator is born, and its first official test subject is the aforementioned opera singer, giving director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer the opportunity to, um, dust off an old joke from "Young Frankenstein." The invention's a smash, Granville's back in Dalrymple's good graces, and yet the poor are, as always, with us, Charlotte's still looking out for them, and trouble's on the horizon and a decision must be made.
"Run back to your silly comfortable life," Charlotte chastises Granville at one point in the film. Given how competent but undistinguished it is in both the silly and the do-gooder departments, "Hysteria" is a movie that's finally a little too comfortable with itself.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.