Director Tanya Wexler is no stranger to Hollywood: as Darryl Hannah’s younger half-sister she spent some of her formative years on the set of “Blade Runner” and soon saw filmmaking as a viable career choice. Fortunately for us it’s the road she took, her new feature film “Hysteria” marking Wexler’s major debut.
The premise is enough to incite giggles among the biggest cynics: an idealistic young physician (Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy) in Victorian-era London invents the world’s first vibrator nearly by accident. Assisted by his eccentric dandy friend (Rupert Everett) and scowled at by his old-fashioned boss Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), Granville struggles to minister to the throngs of hysterical women who show up every day, desperate to be relieved of their crushing sexual frustrations.
Into this walks Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dalrymple’s feisty daughter. Yearning to save the world, Charlotte spends her days, and her inheritance, running a shelter and school for indigent families near her father’s ritzy clinic. She scoffs at his work, calling his clients spoiled rich ladies and their supposed “hysterical” symptoms an expression of the unfairness of Victorian society. She constantly complains about what she is and isn’t expected to do and while her father is used to her tirades, Granville is equal parts enthralled and terrified by her.
Granville and Charlotte fall in love and when Charlotte is arrested and put on trial for punching a policeman in the face (with good reason, of course), only Granville has the chutzpah to step up and defend her. Ultimately, he proposes and she accepts, but there is a strong suggestion that theirs will not be a typical Victorian marriage—it certainly doesn’t seem that Charlotte will need any of Granville’s services once they consummate their relationship.
“Hysteria” is supposed to be a slightly naughty romp which strikes a balance between sight-gag comedy and light social commentary. There are some memorable cameos by various well-known British actresses who play Granville’s frustrated patients, and the scenes during which Granville is forced to treat these women’s sexless bodies are both funny and shocking; there is a frankness in Wexler’s direction that cuts through her humor, though it never undermines her playful tone.
That said, “Hysteria” lacks any real exploration of the radical lack of empowerement which women were forced to endure, both inside and outside the bedroom, during that time. A big-budget romantic comedy probably isn’t the best venue in which to explore these issues but nevertheless, I wish Wexler had had the audacity to dig deeper into the more momentous aspect of the times she chronicles. Yet, considering the dearth of female directors and the usual hysteria surrounding portrayals of female sexuality “Hysteria” is a film worth well worth celebrating.
In theatres May 18th.