Directed by: Tanya Wexler
Premise: Based on a true story. Set in Victorian England, a young physician (Hugh Dancy) becomes the assistant in a practice that treats women suffering from “hysteria” through a technique described as “pelvic massage.” At the same time, the senior doctor’s daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) campaigns for women’s rights and social justice.
What Works: Period costume films, especially those set in epochs like Victorian England, tend to be sterile and stuffy and that can be off-putting. Hysteria is not stuffy at all. In fact, the filmmakers have a great deal of fun by contrasting carnality with the rigid manners of nineteenth century British society and Hysteria is a satisfying story that is often very funny. The movie is at its best when it is playing with that tension. The massage scenes are funny without being too crude and the filmmakers find an appropriate tone, successfully combining broad humor, farce, and comedy of manners. If the story was only about sexual discovery, the subject may not have been enough for a feature film, at least not in the way it is presented here, but the filmmakers smartly connect the liberation of women’s bodies with the liberation of their minds through a subplot involving a suffragist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is very good in the role; she is an American actress but she does the British accent convincingly and as a performer she has an energy that suits the character and punches up her scenes. The subplot involving her character does a lot for the film as it creates a credible tension for the lead character, played by Hugh Dancy. He must choose between a lifestyle that is quite comfortable and a profession that is lucrative but medically unnecessary or a job that better suits his talents and upholds his ideals. The film underplays the tension but this plot element is integral to making the film work and it increases the picture’s intelligence. Hysteria is also successful as a historical piece in that it links the past with the present. At this particular moment, when issues regarding women’s reproductive and sexual health have reentered the public discourse, Hysteria is especially timely and it makes for an interesting reflection on where we’ve come but also a commentary on where we are. Not much is subtle about Hysteria but there is also an interesting thematic undercurrent about class issues as they relate to medicine and public health. The contrast between the rich receiving what amounts to a medical luxury and the poor lacking basic healthcare has a deliberately contemporary currency.
What Doesn’t: The story of Hysteria follows a familiar structure and despite the humor, the film’s production qualities are often very standard for a period piece. The love story that inevitably blossoms between Dancy and Gyllenhaal’s characters does not have much heat to it, although it is convincing enough. Hysteria is a not a deep film. It acknowledges sexual repression but it does not consider the personal and social sources of that repression nor does it consider the broader consequences—good or bad—of relieving it. Similarly, the politics of Hysteria’s filmmakers are very much on the surface. This is a feminist and progressive-friendly picture. That in itself is not bad but Hysteria does trend toward Aaron Sorkin-like didactics which tend to come off as false or forced because they over-pronounce the subtext of the story.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, interviews, deleted scenes, and trailers.
Episode: #415 (November 18, 2012)