Frequently hysterical ‘Hysteria’
Good vibrations: Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett in “Hysteria.”
Updated: May 24, 2012 8:34PM
★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Victorian era is justly famous for many fine developments: railroads, neo-gothic architecture, universal suffrage, the rise of the middle class and inventions such as photography, the phonograph and the telephone.
Stuffiness, too. The Victorians developed stiff, stuffy propriety to its greatest height, which may explain why we seldom associate the era with one of its most revolutionary innovations: the invention of the vibrating personal massager.
It certainly explains why there’s rarely a scene in Tanya Wexler’s wonderful (and often very, very funny) romantic comedy “Hysteria” that doesn’t prompt a smile of delight — just from savoring the perfect irony of the situation.
Wexler, a Chicago and Long Grove-raised half-sister of ’80s star Daryl Hannah and niece of Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, made two well-received independent features (“Finding North” and “Ball in the House”) a decade ago before taking time off to start a family. She developed “Hysteria” from little more than the basic historical facts of the case and the hilarity that ensued anytime she thought of Victorians and vibrators at the same time. That reaction also, apparently, prompted playwright Sarah Ruhl to create her similarly themed, 2010 Tony-nominated stage comedy “In the Next Room.”
There are numerous ironies underscoring the laughs in “Hysteria” and one of them is that progressive, enlightened, scientific thinking is far from a plus in the life of dedicated young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, perfectly cast).
We make his acquaintance just as he’s being fired from the latest in a series of hospitals by an administrator who finds Granville’s belief in “germ theory” to be dangerously radical. Granville, who realizes it’s no coincidence that funeral parlors often popped up next to hospitals, dreams of finding some safe corner in medicine where he can treat people without killing them.
He finds just that in the thriving practice of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, also ideal), who has made a fortune by giving bored, depressed, anxious, well-to-do ladies a diagnosis of hysteria and treating them with vigorous therapeutic massage.
This massage is administered with such an air of medical professionalism, and in such an atmosphere of prim propriety, and with such profound denial on all sides, that what might seem a lewd proposition rarely rises above the level of risqué. Wexler revels in that risqué business, though, and makes it pay off with big laughs again and again.
One of the nice touches in “Hysteria” is the fact that young Dr. Granville, in addition to being a dedicated, forward-thinking, modern man of science, is also a bit of a prig. Just enough to be slightly ill at ease in his new practice and slightly outraged by Dr. Dalrymple’s daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an outspoken suffragette who campaigns for women’s rights and struggles to maintain a settlement house for the poor.
The doctor’s devoted, demure and thoroughly proper younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) is more to his liking, he imagines, but no one who’s seen more than one or two romantic comedies will be in doubt how Mortimer and Charlotte will end up.
Another nice thing is that there’s just enough emotional depth to these characters. Dancy is more an actor than a comic, so you’ll never catch him joking, and Gyllenhaal always brings passion to whatever role she plays, and you care how things will work out for them. Because they’ve been created with such intelligence and wit, they’ll surprise you, here and there.
All this exists, simultaneously, with Wexler’s chief goal, which is to make you laugh, loudly and often, as Victorian inventors brave the unknown (donning safety goggles for the first steam generator-powered human trial) and the potentially improper, for the good of womankind.