Directed by Tanya Wexler
Opens June 1
In the 1880s, middle-class women everywhere suffered from an overactive uterus, or so said Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a renowned physician specializing in the strange affliction of female hysteria. The disorder caused a wide array of symptoms, from sexual frigidity to demanding the right to vote, and the cure could be as severe as a full hysterectomy or as simple as a “pelvic massage,” which stimulates patients to paroxysm (known as an orgasm to modern-day viewers). Dalrymple’s practice focuses on the latter approach, and so successful is his business that he takes on the young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) to share some of the work. It seems that Granville excels at his new job right out of the gate, but a bad case of carpal tunnel threatens to ruin his sole source of income. Luckily, a sudden spark of inspiration just might change his life forever.
Director Tanya Wexler returns to the world of filmmaking after a long hiatus; her last feature, Ball in the House, came out in 2001, and Hysteria feels like it’s on training wheels, an exercise in relearning the process of making movies. The cinematography is simple and straightforward, strictly adhering to the rules of narrative filmmaking. Visually, it has the feel of a TV movie or your standard romcom, despite its impressive cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte Dalrymple, the doctor’s headstrong daughter, and she commandeers the audience, demanding attention as soon as she breezes onscreen. While she’s one half of an argument throughout most of the film, Gyllenhaal deftly walks the fine line between tough and shrill, giving audiences a beacon of light to follow throughout the story.
But despite some good casting and an intriguing setting, Hysteria comes off as just another romantic comedy, bursting with safe, predictable antics. The script goes so far as to throw in a classic I’ll-insult-someone-without-realizing-they’re-right-behind-me joke, and there is a whole lot of period-piece humor (i.e., one character wonders aloud if the telephone will “catch on,” while another refers to germ theory as “poppycock”). Although Hysteria does allude to social struggles that still persist today, the delivery is an odd balance of boring and absurd, never quite reaching the level of excitement its title implies.