Film Review: ‘Hysteria’

It’s taken an entire decade for American filmmaker Tanya Wexler to complete her third feature, and on the evidence of the farcical Hysteria (2011), a further prolonged break from directing may have been preferable to all involved. Proclaiming to be a ‘sumptuous Victorian period piece’, whilst at the same time playing out with a level of faux-bawdy buffoonery more befitting of a sub-par Carry On rather than an intelligent costume drama, Wexler’s return may have the ‘buzz’, but sadly lacks the necessary brains to linger long in the memory.

Hugh Dancy plays forward-thinking go-getter Dr. Mortimer Granville, brought into the clinic of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) to assist in the treatment of ‘hysteria’ – a condition rife amongst the female population of Victorian London. Offering unique relief to their horde of patients, Granville and Dalrymple become leaders in their field, with the young doctor even lined up as a worthy suitor for Dalrymple’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). However, Granville finds himself challenged by Emily’s firebrand sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whilst at the same time preparing to launch a certain ‘electrical appliance’ to aid him in his work.

For those unwilling (or unable) to succumb to Hysteria’s entendre-ridden, playground humour, the resulting 100 minutes are precariously light on either comedy or drama. In the laugh stakes, once you’ve seen one corseted socialite reach the point of climax, you’ve quite frankly seen them all – with none of the vignettes coming close to the raw comic pay-off of ‘that’ moment in When Harry Met Sally… (1989). An amiable Sheridan Smith is perhaps most likely to raise a smile as the Dalrymples’ maid Molly (easily eclipsing the all-too stagy, slightly menacing Rupert Everett), but even this turn feels like its been lifted straight from a hundred other sex comedies.

Desperately trying to crowbar some serious ‘gender politics’ into the piece, Gyllenhaal is surprisingly dull and one-dimensional as convention-defying feminist Charlotte. Not only does the US actress’ unconvincing British accent fluctuate wildly from scene to scene, but her entire performance feels more than a tad ‘phoned-in’ (perhaps on one of period-specific early telephones, such is her preference towards screeching lines at her fellow cast members). In addition, Dancy never really convinces as a leading man, even when fulfilling the hackneyed ‘bumbling Englishmen’ role made famous by his namesake – which makes it all the more puzzling as to why Grant (perhaps my his own hand) no longer seems to be a viable option for such parts.

Feeling more like a 1970s throwback than a bona fide product of the 21st century, Wexler’s Hysteria attempts – and resoundingly fails – to present itself as a light-hearted, empowering crowd-pleaser. Instead, all we come away with is the knowledge that Hugh Grant doesn’t want to do this type of film anymore (but Dancy does), Sheridan Smith needs to start picking better projects and that all women really want is a good, honest ‘fluffing’ once a week.

Daniel Green