Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Video review: "Hysteria"

"Hysteria" had me until about two-thirds of the way through. This witty, funny movie is a highly fictionalized but not entirely ludicrous account of the invention of the vibrator, circa 1880 London. Yes, that's right, the world's most popular sex toy was created by starchy doctors seeking a way to address upper-crust housewives reporting vague physical and emotional problems.

Up until the 1950s, "hysteria" was the catch-all diagnosis that medical men gave to an umbrella of symptoms displayed by women that they didn't understand: frigidity, depression, etc. Going back to antiquity, the prescribed remedy was vulval massage performed by a medical professional. In other words, women would go into a doctor's office to be manually stimulated by the hand of a doctor until they achieved ... remedy.

Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material, concocting a story of an ambitious young doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who took out the first patent on a vibrator.

Apprenticed to a wealthy physician who treats the vexations of London's finest females (Jonathan Pryce), Granville woos his mentor's proper daughter (Felicity Jones) but is intrigued by her sister, the brash, idealistic proto-suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

At first, the dashing young doctor is a boon to the practice. But he soon finds himself plagued by hand cramps, and has to come up with a mechanical alternative with the help of his friend and rich patron, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett).

It's all played for jokes and winks, to generally successful effect. I should point out that despite the film's R rating, all the "treatment" takes place under modest drapes appropriate to the Victorian era, and beyond the risqué subject matter the movie is unlikely to shock even the most matronly of grandmothers.

The last half-hour or so gets a bit forced, as the filmmakers find ways to nudge Charlotte and Granville together in ways that aren't entirely convincing. Charlotte's over-the-top progressive attitudes also become grating, seemingly stitched on to the story to benefit the sensibilities of the modern audience, rather than any temporal believability of the characters.

Video extras, which are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD editions, are substantial but not terribly expansive.

Director Wexler teams up with Dancy and Pryce for a feature-length commentary track. I like it when actors participate in commentary tracks, but it's a shame Gyllenhaal chose not to contribute. Similarly, the featurette "An Evening with Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce" exasperatingly excludes the female lead.

There are also a handful of deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and "Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm," a 43-minute documentary on the history of power-assisted sexuality.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

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