Movie Review: 'Hysteria' -- 4 stars
Directed by Tanya Wexler
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce
"Hysteria" is a remarkable feat of filmmaking: a period piece that transforms the story of the invention of the vibrator into a tender human comedy with universal, popular appeal. Director Tanya Wexler finds something for everyone in her astute, beautifully observed movie. There's heartfelt drama, droll humor, an affecting love story and a feminist message that sticks.
Set in late 19th-century London, the film stars Hugh Dancy as the idealistic Dr. Mortimer Granville, who finds himself out a job after a fight with a superior at his clinic. Seeking to get back on his professional feet, Granville takes up with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who's running a revolutionary practice that seeks to treat "hysteria" (basically any overt emotional behavior) in female patients through a certain, very private, type of massage.
Based on a true story, Wexler's movie isn't the quirky, bodice-ripping Victorian-era sex comedy the premise implies it to be, despite a few moments crafted in that spirit. Instead, it is a sincere and affecting portrait of one of those seminal evolutionary social moments when the currents of change sweep in.
When he's not working, Granville romances Dalrymple's youngest daughter, the effete Emily (Felicity Jones), but the movie's real hero is Emily's sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has rejected the trappings of wealth to work long, hard hours running a homeless shelter. A furious modernizing force, Charlotte is cast out from her rigid, traditional family and socially regarded as the ultimate hysteric.
Beneath its sumptuous, polished exterior, the movie packs a strong emotional punch because of its portrait of Charlotte's fierce independence amid those overwhelming pressures. She is, truly, a woman ahead of her time. At its core, the movie tells the inspirational story of her society slowly, inexorably catching up.