Review: Hysteria (2011)

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My, those Victorians, what an odd bunch. With such a familiar starting point, and a cast like this one (everyone’s in it. Everyone. It’s one of those British movies that just has all the people in it), you know what to expect. Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a flawless accent, is the one surprise in the cast — and the one surprise throughout most of the movie, too.

It’s delightful — of course it is — but there’s actually very little to shock or to make you think any deeper about what’s going on here. It’s a light-hearted comedy about the accidental invention of the vibrator (or ‘personal electrical massage device’), and features the usual suspects found in plenty of British period pieces. Rupert Everett plays Rupert Everett, the character everyone knows is outrageously gay, but no one minds because he’s terribly, terribly wealthy and he has a useful rich boy hobby (tinkering with electricity). Jonathan Pryce is the cynical businessman, in the business of bringing wealthy ladies to orgasm: a ‘tedious’ business, because he’s the kind of chap for whom imagining any woman experiencing joy is an affront to his senses. Maggie Gyllenhaal is his firecracker daughter, her every line delivered with breathless, manic conviction as she rattles from scene to scene defending the poor, the female, the sick, the unwashed and more; with Felicity Jones the passive, doll-like younger sister who merely wafts from studies of phrenology to studies of, apparently, one single book. Hugh Dancy’s the proud young doctor, booted out of all the hospitals in London because he has the temerity to believe in ‘germs’, who then finds himself caught between smugness and tedium (and RSI) as Jonathan Pryce’s heir-apparent. There’s loads more that could be said about the supporting cast, but they’re all playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect, so let’s move on — everyone is perfect in their role, and because of this the film bounces along merrily without any unevenness to the pace.

The actors sell their characters well, the film looks lush, and frankly it’ not a film that invites you to trouble yourself about the plot. However, it does hit a bit of a snag for me with some of the characterisation. Charlotte Dalrymple, the passionate suffragist, is evidently the sister to root for — her whirlwind energy is almost intimidating, and certainly made me think that she was a character who would also have almighty lows in between the driven, single-minded highs we saw. So she ends up a bit one-note, and rather more perfect than she needed to be; the problem being in the script here, and not in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s exuberant performance. But honestly I felt like Mortimer Granville was the only person who could be surprised at the sweetness of her response to him after the trial. His surprise is plausible from the perspective of his character, who is not nearly as socially progressive as Charlotte is, and may remind us that her contemporaries wouldn’t have seen her as a personality beyond the rhetoric, but it’s a reminder of just what a man of his time Mortimer remains. And that’s not a great reminder to get just before his big romantic proposal.

Which, may I add, kind of comes out of nowhere in the film. If he’s suddenly so damned rich, why does he have to marry her, when she’s expressed ambivalence about the prospect of marriage anyway? Is she even on good enough terms with her father at this point to get her dowry? Yes, yes, social conventions, I do understand. But it felt a little too close to a bribe, too soon after she left prison — I will come and work in your scuzzy little clinic but only if you marry me. Not that the film doesn’t show them enjoying each others’ company earlier, or having things in common, but it still felt a little too rushed for me, like they wanted to wrap up ALL the threads as quickly as possible at the end. I’d have liked to see her make use of the £2000 on the community centre before any prospect of marrying the person who provided her with those means came up, but that wouldn’t really have fitted the movie’s arc I suppose.

I did spend much of the movie wishing we saw more of Charlotte and Emily’s relationship — there were nice touches, with Emily defending her sister, but her thought-process remained inaccessible throughout the trial, until she appeared almost as a new woman, explaining why she was really quite happy not to be marrying Granville in the end. Having been convinced that she’d get thrown under the bus in favour of modern, spunky Charlotte, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Emily probably got the better deal in the end — free of Granville’s lukewarm attentions, free of the idea that she should try to please her father by being who he wanted her to be, Emily will take that personal electrical massager, thankyouverymuch, and Emily will not be using it to a prescription. Meanwhile Charlotte has to teach Granville how to kiss properly.

What prevents the movie being anything more than light entertainment is, for me, the use of Granville’s perspective. Contrast it with the best episode of Season 3 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where posh young women are undergoing treatment for hysteria at good old Aunt Prudence’s (Miriam Margolyes) house. The episode gets more into the female characters’ reasons for ending up there, and the ending is a powerful acknowledgement of the effect of repressing emotions, particularly grief, in a conservative, straight-laced society. Hysteria isn’t really that interested in the women at Dr Dalrymple’s clinic, nor in Emily and Charlotte, not beyond their easily recognisable stereotypes anyway. That it is told very much through Granville’s eyes is the reason for this, and probably also the reason why I wasn’t convinced by his proposal in the end; despite some nice interactions, there was little depth to his scenes with Charlotte.

Nevertheless, it was a fun watch, I did laugh a lot, and the performances of the excellent cast kept the standard higher than the script might otherwise have allowed for. And the actual closing line did have me in hysterics…

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