Hysteria is a 2011 period romantic comedy film directed by Tanya Wexler. The screenplay was written by Jonah Marsh and her husband, Stephen Dyer. The film stars Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathon Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett. Dancy stars as a fictionalized version of Dr. Mortimer Granville, a physician who invented the vibrator as a treatment for female hysteria. I have done background information on this and have confirmed everything I am about to say to you. In 1880, female hysteria was a very popular diagnosis for crabby, apparently crazed women. In extreme cases, patients with “hysteria” would be confined to asylums and undergo hysterectomies. It took the world until 1952 to figure out that women were just sexually frustrated and needed release, but medical practitioners somehow figured out that it had something to do with the “sensitive area,” so treatment would usually involve a hand massage of the genitals, known to induce what was termed a “hysterical paroxysm,” later discovered to be what some would call a mythical or illusive event known as the female orgasm. If you don’t believe me, Google it! The strain and inconvenience of doing this by hand causes the young Mortimer, working under Dr. Robert Dalrymple, with the help of his friend Edmund, to create vibrator for use on hysterical patients. Meanwhile, Mortimer draws the attention of both Dalrymple’s daughters, Emily and Charlotte.
Due to the… interesting subject matter, the film has tons of comedic ammunition at its disposal, which it uses very well. I found myself chuckling a lot during this film. I normally hate rom-coms with a passion, and although Hysteria is ultimately a flawed film which hits a lot of the generic rom-com beats, it does enough with its premise to be worthwhile and enjoyable. Hysteria uses its unique premise to its advantage; instead of focusing only on the romantic aspect of the film, which is honestly extremely underdeveloped and leaves much to be desired, the film also cleverly and entertainingly explores exactly how women were treated back in the day (not very well) and the start of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Hysteria does have a lot of problems, the main of which is the fact that, aside from Mortimer and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte, nobody undergoes a real character arc. Everyone besides those two are exactly the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning, and characters without arcs are difficult to get invested in. Emily Mortimer, in particular, played by Rouge One‘s Felicity Jones, is just there for Mortimer to fall in love with and then realize Charlotte’s the one. The romantic part of this romantic comedy, is, frankly, somewhat confusing, underdeveloped, and not very good.
That being said, it still has its positives. Hugh Dancy, who I only know from his role as Will Graham on Hannibal, could charm his way out of anything. Seeing as Graham, the mentally unstable FBI agent, is not very charming, I was very surprised to learn that Dancy was known to everyone else as the exceedingly charming English pretty boy. He is great here, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good, as well. For what it’s worth, I saw this film at Ebertfest yesterday, and both Dancy and Tanya Wexler gave an excellent Q&A. I did not stay for the whole thing, but Dancy seems like a natural comedian, and Wexler revealed that some of the comedic bits in the film were of Dancy’s own design. (Sneaky Hannibal reference)
He jokingly mentioned he made some changes to the script. He presented himself well, and seemed much more intelligent than anyone would think to give him credit for, and Hysteria works much better, I think, because of him.
Hysteria is a flawed, yet ultimately entertaining romp, and I feel that its lead actor, who deserves much better than what he gets, is the reason for that. It’s a funny film which would be better served jettisoning it’s paper thin romantic plotline for something else entirely. The characters are thin, but the actors do a good job, especially its lead. Hysteria is not great, but it is good, and I ultimately enjoyed it, because it was able to subvert enough of the vomit-inducing rom-com tropes to actually be funny, though it falls into enough of those holes to, sadly, miss out on a lot of the film’s potential. If anyone is in need of a lighthearted, lowkey viewing with some good laughs, than I would recommend this film.