Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
Anyone who left Toronto before Thursday night’s premiere of “Hysteria,” usually a time of exodus by film writers and acquisition execs, might’ve missed one of the festival’s most formidable crowdpleasers. The type of good humored, mildly racy period piece that Miramax would routinely turn into hits in the mid- to late ‘90s, Tanya Wexler’s comedy about the birth of the vibrator in 1880s London is safe and charming enough to take your grandmother to and yet just subversive enough to make it feel fresh.
As illuminating about the straitlaced Victorian era as it is luminescent as an entertainment, “Hysteria” takes place as electricity starts to creep into the culture, the energy being tinkered with for all sorts of practical applications. While his friend (Rupert Everett) marvels over his new phone and the humongous generator that will power some inventions, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has trouble finding work in a world where old salves such as leeches are being applied to new wounds. Granville finds a taker for his more progressive approach to medicine in a place of last resort, the practice of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a gynecologist who long ago traded in his sure hand for curing women’s ills for a shaky one intended for sexual satisfaction only.
Naturally, the moment Granville steps into Dalrymple’s office, “Hysteria” threatens to become an unending series of double entendres, especially once Dalrymple sets up Granville with his considerable clientele of bored housewives who suffer from sexual deprivation. But it’s when Granville immerses himself into Dalrymple’s family that the true cleverness of Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer’s script emerges, reconfiguring the plot of a traditional romantic comedy and the themes of generational shift into a story of liberation of all kinds for its characters.
Granville is caught between wooing Dalrymple’s daughters, the reserved Emily (Felicity Jones) and the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but the choice is not his to make. (As Wexler noted during the film’s post-screening Q & A, while he proposes twice, you never hear anyone accept.) Instead, his courtship, much like the “healing” he practices, becomes a necessity of the times rather than of the heart and unlike so many in the patriarchal society, he’s disillusioned with the order of things. All the women he services are diagnosed as “hysterics,” and Charlotte, who runs a settlement house for the poor, is considered a lunatic by her father when in reality, the only insanity that exists is in adhering to the standards of previous generations rather than surpassing them.
This all might be very heavy-handed if “Hysteria” wasn’t so light on its feet. Wexler is more than willing to play the comedy broad, as are her actors, delivering setpieces that result in nearly as much seat-rocking as “paracisms” Granville’s patients experience in his care, particularly once Granville turns his friend's mechanical feather duster into the world's first pocket rocket. Yet for everything that’s big about the film — its ornate presentation, the overeager performances from Dancy and Gyllenhaal, and most obviously, the laughs – “Hysteria” is kept deceptively simple. Although it stumbles late towards its conclusion at a courthouse, which is the last place a film like this should end up, “Hysteria” never drags or gets hung up on its easily exploited premise, opting to go for warm, gutteral guffaws rather than straight to the gutter.
Wexler couldn’t help but run into some inadvertent puns while answering questions from the audience after the film played to raucous applause, rattling off some potential taglines such as “the feel-good movie of the year” and “it has a happy ending” before concluding “This is like the movie that spawned a thousand T-shirts.” Judging from the reaction at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, there’ll be more than a thousand willing to wear them.