Tanya Wexler's rom-com-cum-costume drama documents the invention of the vibrator - believed to be a sure-fire cure for hysteria in Victorian members of the delicate sex
What a bunch of fools those stiff-collared Victorians were - so prim and proper, with their sexual repression and laughable medical practices. Or so Tanya Wexler would have us believe in her witless rom-com-cum-costume drama, Hysteria. With a script that makes tacky seaside postcard comedy presentable for middle class audiences by dressing the cast in bustles and top hats, it still can't help feeling like the latest incarnation of the Carry On films. Think Kenneth Williams performing Hamlet, and you start to get the picture.
The year is 1880. Forward-thinking Grenville Mortimer (Hugh Darcy) teams up with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) to help cure women of the pandemic of the day - hysteria. It is an 'illness', loosely defined as a condition imposed on women when they do anything a man doesn't like, and only curable by a medically-induced orgasm. After a series of scenes involving a host of uptight, middle-aged ladies of leisure screwing up their faces and reaching climax as Pryce fiddles around in their undergarments, the ever medically-progressive Mortimer sets out to invent the world's first vibrator with his aristocratic business partner Edmund St. John-Smythe (a ghoulishly camp performance by Rupert Everett). Matters are made more complicated by the presence of Dalrymple's daughters, the prim and proper Emily (Felicity Jones) and the wild-spirited suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who both end up competing for Mortimer's heart.
But Hysteria is all rather tiresome. The script is laced with double entendres and innuendos of the lowest order, such as Jones's Emily referring to Mortimer's head during a phrenological examination as possessing a "rigid thrombosis" (oo-er missus). The cloyingly bad lines, along with jokes at the expense of rutting ducks, are all far too much. Worse still, it's all in very cheap contrast to the subject matter of the film, which includes women's rights, mortality rates and radical class division. If the only way a period comedy can approach the subject of female sexual liberation is via badly-written vibrator jokes, one wonders who is really repressed here. Fortunately Gyllenhaal saves the project from utter disaster in an impressively manic and impassioned performance that the script doesn't really deserve.
Neither funny enough nor serious enough, Hysteria is a series of constant disappointments and cringe-worthy gags which, in a different era, would probably have ended up as a film called Carry On Climax.