Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones
Directed by: Tanya Wexler (“Ball in the House”)
Written by: Stephen Dyer (“Ball in the House”) and Jonah Lisa Dyer (debut)
During the closing credits of “Hysteria,” a period comedy that tells the story of how the female vibrator came to be invented, the device’s history is presented in photos of the ever-evolving sex toy over the last 100 or so years. It’s some of the most interesting information offered by the film, which, despite its intriguing narrative, doesn’t satisfy the more complex issues women faced in the late 19th century. Instead, director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Dyer choose to wink their eye at the audience, toss out double entendres like they were free condoms during Spring Break, and hope the lighthearted nature of their screenplay is enough to overlook the film’s bigger problems.
Actor Hugh Dancy is definitely not one of the pitfalls of “Hysteria.” He stars as Mortimer Granville, a young doctor who finds himself dealing with a medical condition known as hysteria, which, at the time, was affecting half of the women in Britain. Insomnia, depression, and nervousness were only some of the symptoms of the disorder, which would later be understood to be more about sexual frustration than anything. When Mortimer lands a job with a doctor (Jonathan Pryce) specializing in treating women suffering from hysteria, he doesn’t find the work as gratifying as he had hoped, although he makes quite a name for himself for delivering relief to his female patients. He is also quite smitten with the doctor’s prim and proper daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and confused by her volatile sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
While “Hysteria” demands attention for its own sexual revolution like 2004’s biopic “Kinsey” on scientist Alfred Kinsey, not all the pieces are here to make that happen. Dancy is marvelous as the straight-laced doctor who wants to be taken seriously as a professional, but his interaction with Gyllenhaal is not very convincing. Neither is his relationship with Jones, whose role as a wallflower is wasted.
In a comedy that should be screaming female liberation from the rooftop, Wexler and her writers seem to think any genuine thoughts or feelings of the women involved are inconsequential since we never hear from them (besides the squeals of ecstasy at the hands of Dr. Granville). Give “Hysteria” credit for livening up the era, but by not saying more than a few oohs and aahs, it really is a missed opportunity to mark a noteworthy event in medical history.