This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 2nd September 2012
Delicate opening credits and a tinkly soundtrack suggest you’re about to embark on a jolly hockeysticks kind of Merchant Ivory production. It’s London in the 1880s – all poor-houses, horse-drawn carriages and animal muck in the streets, and a time when any woman who spoke out with passion or expressed discontent was branded “hysterical”. Phrenology (that is, judging a person’s character by the shape of their skull) was in, while germ-theory was considered poppycock.
Hard at work in his medical practice, Jonathan Pryce’s Dr Dalrymple makes an excellent living treating these hysterics – bored, neglected, middle-class housewives who arrive weekly with a twinkle in their eye, ready to be relieved of their mental and emotional ailments in a manner that will surprise any audience member who hasn’t read the film poster. Because Hysteria is in fact the based-pretty-much-on-fact story of the invention of the vibrator.
Hugh Dancy (recently in Martha Marcy May Marlene and clearly on the up as he is soon to play the lead criminal profiler in the US TV series of Hannibal) is a young doctor with a mild bout of social conscience who nonetheless enjoys the fiscal trappings of working to “cure” these women. Hugh Grant he’s not, and though this story is all about delivering “a satisfactory paroxysm”, Dancy’s performance is surprisingly limp. As the naive Mortimer Granville he is taken under the senior doctor’s wing and into his home, where Granville meets the two very different daughters played by Felicity Jones (you’ve seen her face even if you don’t know her name) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, sporting a flawless Emma Thompson impression and acquitting herself brilliantly.
Throw in a flamboyant Rupert Everett and a supporting cast of familiar faces, this is a lively story, well-told, but let down overall by an over-obvious script. That said, there are enough Meg Ryan moments to garner laughs, and while not the most stimulating adaptation of an otherwise fascinating medical development, the film is sure to deliver a buzz.