Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hysteria: Does Blue Cross Cover That?

It was a moment in history worthy of the Niall Ferguson treatment.  However, instead of explaining how the invention of the vibrator served as the coup de grace for the Ottoman Empire, gender politics and naughty humor are the agenda items for Tanya Wexler’s slightly risqué historical comedy Hysteria (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Though his wealthy guardians, the St. John-Smythes, would support him, the appallingly middle class Dr. Mortimer Granville has that famous protestant work ethic.  He is also up-to-date with the latest advances in medical science, which brings him into conflict with most of London’s frighteningly backward hospital directors.  Fortunately, he secures a position with Dr. Robert Dalrymple, the city’s foremost specialist in “hysteria,” a sort of catch-all diagnosis for women’s nervous tension, but mostly applied to straight-up horniness.  Dr. Dalrymple has built a thriving practice manually stimulating women to what he calls a “paroxysm.”  Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like, as the film makes abundantly clear.

Dalrymple also has two daughters, the prim and proper Emily, whom Granville is supposed to be interested in, and Charlotte, the rabble-rousing progressive settlement house proprietor he is increasingly attracted to, against his better judgment.  Granville seems to finally have his life mapped out for him, until he is undone by a hand cramp, but together with the St. John-Smythes’ dissolute son Edmund, he invents a little mechanical device of destiny.

Hysteria milks its eye-brow raising material for snickers well enough, but the tut-tutting at Victorian hypocrisies quickly becomes tiresome.  Frankly, the film’s best chemistry is the bromance between Hugh Dancy’s Granville and Rupert Everett’s St. John-Smythe, whom we are clearly led to suspect will only be satisfying women through his tinkering.  Conversely, the film is often undermined by big-name miscasting, particularly that of Maggie Gyllenhaal as the sister leading Granville astray.  Can we believe she is annoying? Yes.  Intelligent?  Sort of, but it’s a stretch.   Alluring?  Not really.  Yet, the milquetoast Felicity Jones is hardly more attractive as the bland Emily.

The only real surprise in Hysteria is the extent to which Wexler is willing to show the various “paroxysm.”  Have no fear, our views are always safely obstructed by volumes of petticoats, largely making the film a tease for some potential audiences.  Those wishing to see a slightly ribald edition of PBS’s Masterpiece that wears its feminism on its sleeve will find Hysteria perfectly fits the bill, but everyone else will consider it mostly pleasant, but lightweight and predictable.  For Anglophiles, it opens tomorrow (5/18) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine Theaters.  As a final note, if you go, stay for the closing credits, featuring cool stills of vintage “Granville’s Hammers.”