As is unfortunately the case with far too many films, Hysteria is not of one mind – that is to say that it tells two very different stories that are only tenuously linked thru the main characters rather than thru any particular plot points. It purports to be based on real events and indeed some portions of the film are historically accurate. It also represents one of the few romantic comedies to present itself as a partial biopic. However, much of the film is conjecture, albeit at times somewhat fascinating and entertaining conjecture. Indeed, the doctors’ visits discussed below are quite amusing if not in the best taste for certain discerning viewers.
Hysteria tells the story of Dr. Mortimer Granville who found himself working for another physician who treated women for “female hysteria.” This hysteria was once considered a real medical condition throughout Great Britain and on the European continent reaching its height of diagnosis and treatment in the late Victorian Era. Such hysteria was treated in a multitude of ways, but Hysteria focuses on Granville’s adoption of the method used by the physician for whom he worked – the fictional Dr. Robert Dalrymple. Their method of treating hysteria was to ensure that their female patients achieved a “hysterical paroxysm.” Simply put, what all of these hysterical women really needed was to experience an orgasm. The visitations by woman after woman to the doctors’ office provide some fascinating and sometimes hilarious results. Just imagine a Judd Apatow film set in Victorian England and you will have some idea of what transpires in these visits. Ultimately, Granville – with monetary and technical assistance from a wealthy friend (wittily played by Rupert Everett) – creates the first electric device for a woman to satisfy herself without a man’s assistance.
One might think this was an interesting enough topic for a Victorian period-piece comedy, but husband-and-wife screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer add other intersecting plot. Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) has two daughters. One is an extremely strong-willed, steel-spined fighter for women’s issues named Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the other a demure, science-minded ladylike supporter of her father’s more conservative views named Emily (Felicity Jones). When first meeting the daughters, Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) is startled by Charlotte’s behavior and attitudes and finds Emily much more to his liking. Mortimer and Emily begin a courtship of which her father approves as Dalrymple hopes to leave his practice to Mortimer with Emily by his side. However, Mortimer becomes increasingly interested in the spirited and winning Charlotte. When she stands up for her beliefs and publicly confronts her father and the police, Mortimer comes to her aid in court and we can see that they are destined to be together.
So how, you may ask, are the events described in the second and third paragraphs of this review connected? Well, they aren’t really, and that is a major problem with the screenplay and the film itself. As suggested above, the film contains two distinct stories that are intertwined in an unusual and ultimately disappointing fashion. The cast is rather unremarkable, but then again they are not given much to do except play the characters so often seen in period comedies of this sort. Dancy seems to play the same character in nearly every film (with few exceptions). Jones has little to do but be pretty and polite. Pryce once again plays an English gentleman seemingly befuddled by those around him. Gyllenhaal (whose English accent is never quite right) once again plays a woman of conviction and spirit as she’s done many times before. They adequately do their duty in representing these stock characters, but alas the script is not strong enough to make their efforts worth our while.