Dave White
Hysteria Review

Dave's Rating:


Not the Def Leppard documentary you were expecting

What perfect timing. It's almost too coincidental that a film about the sexual desires and socio-political agency of 19th century women drops into theaters at just the moment when elected officials have taken it upon themselves to try to roll back the control women have over their bodies and lives. It was high time somebody made the cinematic case for female sexual autonomy, presented in the context of the historical examination of -- wait, sorry, wrong movie. VIBRATORS EVERYBODY! LADY ORGASMS! TEE HEE!

It's late 19th century London and Victorian ideas about sex and its proper place in the lives of women is not up for debate. It's a medical "fact" of the era that hysteria is a real illness caused by an "over-active uterus" and that it causes tension, anxiety, headaches and a horse-drawn carriage full of other maladies. Hugh Dancy plays a young doctor hired on as an associate by Jonathan Pryce, a physician specializing in the treatment of hysteria. Pryces's appointment book is so full that the aging doctor can no longer keep up with the physical demands of manually treating the affected areas of so many patients. But when Dancy eventually winds up with carpal tunnel syndrome in the line of duty, it's the newly invented vibrator to the rescue.

Complication: Firebrand reformer and proto-suffragette Maggie Gyllenhaal -- who also happens to be Pryce's daughter -- is always on the verge of financial ruin, as her shelter/clinic for impoverished women and their children doesn't bring in the money it needs to provide necessary services. The resulting clanging, obvious clashes between independent woman and young doctor, independent woman and conservative father, independent woman and class conscious benefactors and, finally, independent woman and the law itself means that Gyllenhaal will eventually find herself on fighting for her life in a kind of Victorian witch trial.

That means two movies are in a big battle over what turns out to be not very much. In one corner is the Benny Hill-y movie about masturbation in which a vibrator prototype is beta tested on a saucy lady of the night-turned Downton Abbey-style maid-minx named Molly the Lolly (cue the "Yakity Sax") and an upper class opera soprano bursts into high C when the machine makes its doctor's office debut. Seriously. This really happens.

In the other corner is a heartfelt pre-feminist courtroom drama and opposites-attract romance that resembles every other courtroom drama and opposites attract romance you've ever laid eyes on. It wants to be a progressively sexual The King's Speech but it plays more like A Dangerous Method meets Three's Company meets The Main Event on a field trip to Toys in Babeland for a battery-operated workshop. In the middle is you, the person who'll come for the titillation, stay for the naughty sex jokes, sleep during the serious bits and go home as unsatisfied as when you arrived.


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