In Hysteria, a Victorian period piece about medical misogyny, three walking clichés brought to life by Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal interact entertainingly enough for an hour and a half’s amusement. Dancy plays an energetic young doctor devoted to science, the kind who huffs and puffs about cleanliness and infections and how, by gosh, it’s 1870 and we can’t be bleeding people or treating them with phony patent medicines. Jones plays a young lady of taste and breeding with high ideals, good manners and avocations both admirable (music) and ridiculous (phrenology). Gyllenhaal is her sister; she is also a young lady of fine morals and ideals, but her ideals are of the proto-feminist, suffragette variety, and she works with the poor and shakes her lovely fists at convention.
If Hysteria sounds like the kind of tastefully presented historical tableaux that you’ve seen a hundred times before, it is—excepting the multiple, on-screen orgasms.
Fear not, faint-of-heart moviegoer, none of this sexual satisfaction is allowed the three leads. Dancy’s newfangled notions about germs may make him a flop in London’s hidebound hospitals, but his retrograde beliefs about women make him a perfect fit to serve as an assitant to “hysteria” doctor Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple’s practice consists of ministering to unhappy wealthy women; he makes them happy by manually stimulating them to orgasm (under a tasteful velvet canopy, of course). He does not believe this treatment gives “real” pleasure, but simply returns the uterus to its “normal position” by causing a “paroxysm.” Thus, the film presents us with a series of scenes—all played for laughs—in which the delightfully clueless Pryce and Dancy “treat” their patients.
There is a flip side to this jollity, however, and it’s the viciousness of Victorian misogyny. This is integrated logically into the plot, but isn’t reconciled with the comedy—and the tone lurches from Blake Edwards-style hijinx to Dickensian melodrama to cold, cruel women-hating and back again.
As noted, the leads are all what the script calls for, but no more; sexual passion is not integrated into their love triangle, alas. On the bright side, Rupert Everett steals all his scenes in the role of a witty aristocrat. His Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe is rich, entitled and pleasure-seeking, but not totally indolent: It’s his passion for science—and electricity in particular—that directly leads to the film’s “eureka” moment, the invention of the electric vibrator.
Again, it’s the charming gay man who proves to be the ladies’ best friend.