Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hysteria (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Hysteria" is a charming drawing room romantic comedy of sorts based on the life of Dr. Mortimer Granville, known for his invention of Granville's Hammer or the vibrator. It is a period piece with plenty of bouncy back and forth banter. Despite its time and place of darkness, leeches and mud, it is as Orientalist and colorful as an Oscar Wilde comedy and given its risqué  subject matter, it will give you light tickles if not irreverent jolts. 

If the camera were in other inexperienced hands, the subject might be maudlin or overly silly but Tanya Wexler treats the birth of the vibrator as it were,  in a very matter of fact tone with an equality of humor and history. You can imagine how the Farrelly brothers would treat such subject matter here.

Hugh Dancy stars as Dr. Granville who lives as a bachelor with Lord St. John-Smythe played by Rupert Everett. Lord St. John-Smythe with his leering eyebrows and sarcastic tone set against the backdrop of his drawing room filled with odd galvanic devices, resembles Dorian Gray's Basil and Victor Frankenstein. The film would be a hit with these two characters alone but there is more. Enter Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as an impetuous champion of the poor and women's  rights. She is a red-haired fireball, fighting with Wollstonecraft wiles. Charlotte does not suffer charlatans gladly, medical or otherwise.

Hard up for work, Granville approaches the quasi-Freudian Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who believes in paroxysms to cure restlessness, anxiety or almost anything. Dr. Granville is in the chips. Then he sprains his hand. And a legend---the vibrator---which resembles a large metal box is born. 

Seeing is better than believing and Wexler does it. The characters possess a quirk and whimsy that is not all trivial buzz. We have some ample bawdy jokes here provided by Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith). 

It is Maggie Gyllenhaal however that moves the film forward and gives it a meaningful anchor regarding women's civil rights beyond any sexual silliness.

"Hysteria" is actually three films in one. First, it is a sex comedy, then its a dramatic period piece all tied up into a Wilde Wollstonecraftic romantic comedy. All three elements are enjoyable and stand on their own, but  every aspect hums better together and you never get distracted by the shifts in tone. 

I'll admit that it glosses over its subject a bit. I never really got a sense of Doctor Dalrymple despite the fact that he was personally prudish and I wondered what made him unique other than the fact that he hired an inventively daring doctor. 

But this is only a feather of a reservation. 

"Hysteria" ultimately succeeds by subverting the genre of the romantic comedy. It delivers much historical charge to an unconventional and ticklish subject, mostly through the force of Maggie Gyllenhaal who delivers genuine information with bouyant verve and passion. This film is a strong delight that will pique your interest while it generously and sometimes blushingly informs.

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