Hysteria is a Carry On film with ambitions of feminism. As you might imagine, this is problematic, and it’s a problem the film never really solves. This lack of resolution, plus a few other niggles here and there, keeps me from declaring the film a success. But it’s not bad either. Clumsy and didactic the film may be, but its heart is definitely in the right place. What’s more, the spectacle of Victorian high society men confronting the female orgasm, is about as funny as you might expect.
Honestly, I wish I liked it more. The whole issue of hysteria (in essence ‘female emotional behaviour that men don’t understand’ repackaged as a medical condition, that could be cured by orgasm) is one of those pieces of historical silliness that I adore. It seems to me that narrative fiction always has this sombre, respectful, serious approach to history, as if it’s some grand old man whose every pronouncement must be treated with reverence. Whereas, if you actually study history at all, what you quickly find is that the old man is senile. History is composed of the actions of humans, and there is no constant like the silliness of humans. It’s nice to see this aspect of history getting some attention.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the story has problems.
On a basic level, matters work fairly well. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a young doctor of a forward-thinking persuasion, which makes him a pariah in the eyes of the medical establishment. Luckily for him, one Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) requires an assistant. His clinic for the treatment of hysteria is very busy, and he (not to mention his patients) is in need of a helping hand. There Granville meets the Dalrymple daughters: Emily (Felicity Jones) who is the perfect example of Victorian womanhood, and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is outspoken, passionate and, worst of all, associates with the poor. Granville, being a proper Victorian man, immediately falls for the former and disdains the latter.
So, Hysteria has the standard romance plot. But for all its lack of inspiration, it’s executed rather well. Dancy and Gyllenhaal have some nice adversarial chemistry, the plot is well paced and the characters mostly solidly constructed. A couple of comic reliefs, the (somewhat)ex-prostitute Molly (Sheridan Smith) and the noble sexual deviant Edmund St.John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) aren’t so much characters as walking jokes, as indeed are most of the hysteria patients. But that’s only to be expected. This is after all a funny film. The occasional thin character is a usual symptom of comedy.
But where this becomes problematic is with the film’s message. See, this is very much a historical film told through modern eyes, and as such, the heroes of the story are also those with a more ‘modern’ sensibility. This would be fine, if they didn’t keep aggressively flaunting it. Granville and Charlotte all but run around screaming ‘I support woman’s rights, free education, socialism, germ theory, the telephone, electricity- OH GOD I’M SO PROGRESSIVE”, like holding these beliefs is a big thing. But to modern ears, it sounds like a bunch of people crowing about how amazing it is that they think the sky is blue.
Of course, during the 1880s, believing such things was a Big Deal. But that’s because these beliefs were reactions against deeply entrenched social norms. Take woman’s rights for example. The concept that women were inferior to men was, in the 1880s, not some quaint, mockable custom. It was a societal norm that had existed for thousands of years. Challenging it is one of the most remarkable shifts human society has ever undergone. Considering the strength of the opposition, even the vague success of that challenge is incredible.
That is what any treatment of the growth of woman’s rights, or any of the other progressive movements of the 19th century, has to bring across: the image of a slingless David facing down a Goliath with a submachine gun. But Hysteria doesn’t. The film does give some sense of the opposition, don’t get me wrong. It has its fair share of establishment-minded characters. But in playing so many of these establishment viewpoints for laughs, mocking the Victorian men for getting so flustered about sex, laughing at their ‘scientific’ approach to the female orgasm, Hysteria undermines the seriousness of the establishment view. This would be fine, were the film a full comedy, but it also wants to make a serious point. It wants to state the importance of being progressive. Unfortunately it never manages to capture why being progressive so brave and necessary.
That’s not the only difficulty the film has. There’s a few hamfisted moments, where the characters make the classic ‘wild yet accurate’ speculations about what the future will be like, a joke that was already ancient in the 1880s. What’s more, Hysteria contains the worst jump cut I have ever seen. But on the whole, the film’s problem lies in its politics. The humour is grand: filthy, childish, charming stuff. The romance is engaging. But the film’s attempts to be serious are unsuccessful. All of which adds up to: entertaining, but not exactly good.