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by Jack Sommersby

"Engaging Romantic Comedy"
4 stars

One of those art-house endeavors that probably wouldn't play well with today's mainstream audiences who think the hoary "The Hangover" is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Despite a conventional structure and contrived final section, Hysteria, a slight but entertaining comedy set in 1880 London, is worth seeing. It's a first effort from the husband-wife screenwriting team of Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, and the consistently bright dialogue is one of the movie's greatest strengths -- it's wonderful to listen to and yet it never calls undue attention to itself, which is by no means a small accomplishment in a day and age when too many half-assed writers all but italicize their supposedly witty words. There's both a hero and a heroine: the former is the young physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who gets hired on as the assistant of the city's leading gynecologist Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose specialty is curing a woman's "hysteria" by massaging the genital area until she's cured by "paroxysmal convulsions" (i.e. orgasms); and the latter the wealthy gynecologist's headstrong progressive daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's dedicated herself to operating a dilapidated shelter for impoverished women, much to the chagrin of her father who wants her to take advantage of her privileged upbringing and become an impersonal cog of the upper-society wheel. The two are destined to be together, but Mortimer has allowed himself to become engaged to Charlotte's acquiescent sister Emily (Felicity Jones), and Charlotte has initial misgivings toward Mortimer in his refusal to medically treat Charlotte's clients for free so as not to upset his comfortable working/living arrangement in Dalrymple's lush manor. Word spreads quickly of the mind-blowing pleasure involved in receiving "hysteria" treatment, with the appointment book filled for every time slot for every day, but the work involved has resulted in Mortimer's hand experiencing involuntary twitches and cramps (he has to dunk it into icy water on a regular basis); that is, until he and his wealthy best friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) experience the pleasure with a homemade electric-powered hand-held cleaning device that delivers "warm and tingly" sensations -- if it feels this good just by holding it, imagine if a modification of it were placed inside, well, you know, a woman's most erogenous zone, and without a visit to the doctor? Yes, this is the first movie to detail the invention and introduction into society of a vibrator; and if the movie were resting solely on its laurels on this and this alone, it would no doubt be negligible, but Hysteria is at least a grade or two above that.

Shot by shot, scene by scene, Hysteria is fluidly told by the director, Tanya Wexler, whose previous two features I missed. Working in widescreen and employing a perfectly capable cinematographer in Sean Bobbitt and editor in Jon Gregory, Wexler shapes her sequences adequately and never gets weighed down in top-heavy period detail like you get in those ungodly stiff Merchant/Ivory productions; the movie runs a brisk one-hundred minutes, and almost all of its visual and aural punch lines work exactly as intended. (Inexplicably, Hysteria has been rated R for "sexuality," and not because of a single scene of sexual intercourse but because of the sight of fully-clothed women having orgasms in a doctor's office. And to think a PG-13 rating can be given to an action movie with people being blown away by the latest automatic weapons!) And the acting is, for the most part, first-rate. Darcy has some of the charm of a young Colin Firth, always nimble and ingratiating, giving his lines the occasional ironic spin; he doesn't ring a single false note and manages to hold his own alongside seasoned pros Pryce and Everett. I don't know if he's got much range, but in a breezy romantic comedy such as this he's perfectly suitable to the tasks at hand. If there's a weak element in the cast, it's Gyllenhaal, a problematic taste I've yet to acquire. While everyone else is playing things "naturally," Gyllenhaal exaggerates and emotes as if she were at the Royal Shakespeare Theater making sure to project her voice to the very last row; she's an overly busy actress lacking the confidence that the camera will reach in and get the performance. (In his exchanges with the luminous Jones, Darcy gets a much better rapport going; and even in the minor role of the Dalrymple maid, Sheridan Smith outclasses Gyllenhall by a golden mile.) If not a whole lot of the movie stays with you afterward, it's due to the stale story schema and square dramatic base -- everything turning out swimmingly for the morally-righteous lead characters we can live with, but the route to which this is arrived at is mechanical, particularly in the platitudinous courtroom finale. Overall, Hysteria is too vague and predictable to have much resonance, and it lacks the wit and telling observation of Robert Altman's slightly underrated Dr. T & the Women, which, too, offered up a gynecological hero and an independent-minded love interest. But within their script's limited parameters the Dyers have colored vividly: they serve up the familiar without completely ceding to the perfunctory; and though it must have been awfully tempting, they refuse to exploit the material for a barrel of cheap laughs. And in Wexler's capable mitts, it's been turned into a minor but modest achievement.

The DVD sports superb picture quality and dexterous audio, with a decent amount of special features.

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originally posted: 04/20/14 03:12:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/19/14 Richard Brandt Lives up to the buzz. 4 stars
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  18-May-2012 (R)
  DVD: 18-Sep-2012


  DVD: 18-Sep-2012

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