Director: Tanya Wexler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett Sheridan Smith
Watch Hysteria online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
Is it possible to derive pleasure from something artificial and manmade? That’s the question asked every day by users of the electric vibrator – and people who watch Adam Sandler films. Hysteria tells the story of the former. And unlike Adam Sandler’s machine-driven, synthetic products, it’s pretty pleasurable stuff.
Things start off gently, as young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) pulsates with frustration at the backwards world around him. All he wants is to heal the sick, he argues, throbbing with built-up emotion and no release.
But he finally gets the chance to discharge his juices in Dr Dalrymple’s (Pryce) practice. There, he learns to cure hysteria, an emotional malady that afflicts middle-aged women with no husband to satisfy them, through a vigorous and (ahem) hands-on treatment.
(You’ve got to give it to Jonathan Pryce. He’s done it all. Terry Gilliam, Harold Pinter, Shakespeare, Dr Who. He’s even been a Bond villain. And now, thanks to Tanya Wexler, he’s spent 95 minutes massaging women’s genitals on a big screen.)
But this dildo drama isn’t always stimulating. There’s the matter of the awkwardly ribbed plot, which sees Mortimer fall for Dr. Dalrymple’s obedient daughter, Emily (the always-excellent Felicity Jones), while never noticing his more impetuous offspring, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal, with a Bridget Jones-beating Brit accent). She’s dismissed as hysterical, of course, but her own diagnosis has nothing to do with lady bits: Hysteria, she reasons, is a catchall term for downtrodden women. Because there’s nothing that turns an audience on quite like strong social commentary.
“This is the 1880s! We’re supposed to be in the middle of a medical revolution!” squawks Dancy, in one of the film’s subtler lines of dialogue. The historical inaccuracies may dull some audience members’ excitement – Granville never did use his vibrator to treat the titular condition – but Wexler wades through the clunky script fast enough to get the good vibrations going. Thanks mostly to a cheerful cast – all visibly flushed with excitement – what starts as a light tickle grows into an enjoyable tingling sensation, which erupts into paroxysms of joy when Rupert Everett pops up and practically invents phone sex.
Sheridan Smith hits the spot every time as naughty maid Molly (“The Lolly”), while the sight of Jonathan Pryce merely raising his eyebrows and saying the word “hand” is enough to excite the most hysterical of women. But the charming Dancy and Gyllenhall are the real stimulants, rubbing off against each to produce some unexpected sparks of romance and comedy. Is it possible to derive pleasure from something artificial and manmade? Hysteria’s answer is a yes, yes, yes, oh God, yes.
It takes a long time to get going and feels mechanical in places but when it finds its sweet spot, Hysteria makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.