Review of Hysteria
As I believe I mentioned when talking about my play (which gets its second reading this coming Thursday!), I’ve spent the better part of two years researching the Victorian phenomenon that is hysteria. I was pretty excited when I saw that there was a movie being made about it with some actors that I very much enjoy watching. And so it was the on the fifth of July, I sat myself down in a cinema and watched the movie.
The script for the first half of the movie left me alternately exhilarated and disappointed. There is no doubt that Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer are good writers; the script was witty and fast-paced with great characterization. However, I was less enamored with the way they chose to use that skill. For a good hour of the film (and then some here and there), the exchanges consisted almost entirely of penis and sex jokes, whether purposely delivered by a character or slipped into a line for our amusement.
Or most people’s amusement. I’ll admit it right now that while I wouldn’t label myself a prude anymore, I am definitely not one to revel in sex jokes, at least not for that long. One now and then can be very funny, as happened in the last part of the film. Actually, in a movie set in the 1880s, based around the upper classes, it can be refreshing; contemporary writers, myself included, tend to write upper class Victorian people as individuals who only discussed the weather in plummy accents, but the fact is that they were indeed people, most of whom had sex. But as I say, a steady stream of sex jokes was a little too much. I also think that, due to the amount of research I’ve done and the seriousness with which I look on hysteria, I might not have been the right audience for comedy about the fictional disorder. To the other moviegoers, hysteria was a silly little thing treated by being pleasured by a doctor and exchanging sex jokes with a wink. To me, hysteria is a silly little thing that was treated with institutionalization and hysterectomies. Both, save for perhaps the jokes, are true, but I found it almost insulting that the matter was treated so lightly. Then again, I’m probably being too cerebral about the whole thing.
As disappointed as I may have been with some of the beginning, the end of the movie was great. (Spoiler warning!) About 45 minutes to an hour in was, I feel, when the movie really became what it wanted to be: a funny, heartfelt historical comedy. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Charlotte is a, outspoken, progressive woman, but believably and differently so. While she does do the famous handing out of suffragette leaflets, Charlotte also reads science journals and, despite coming from an uptight household, devotes her time to running an organization to aid poor families. While I am always in support of a progressive woman, Charlotte is a new breed for movies: many early feminist characters are out for themselves in some way. Charlotte gets very little- in fact, probably no- benefit from helping the poor, but she sees that it is needed and does it anyway.
Mortimer Granville, Hugh Dancy’s character and a real person, is in part the typical young bumbling Englishman. A lot of times I find this annoying, but this is where the sex jokes redeem themselves: Granville himself may be inexperienced and awkward when it comes to affairs of the heart, but he understands the jokes and can banter, which saves him from falling into a stereotype.
Even the secondary characters are saved from being strictly stereotypical by the Dyers. Charlotte’s beautiful younger sister, Emily, is first made out to be the usual pretty-but-shallow Victorian girl, perfect for Granville to scoop up once he becomes famous because Emily’s too shallow to say much at all. Everything about her is silly up until the very end of the film. Granville, realizing that he is in love with the fiery Charlotte, goes to Emily to break off their engagement- and she does it first. The events of the film make her see that life is much more complex than she’s ever had to contemplate, but now she finds that she wants to contemplate it. It’s a well-done move on the Dyers’ part, and one that came just in time to save Emily’s character.
My favorite moment of the film is again an example of breaking the mold just in time. Charlotte is arrested for assaulting a police officer at Granville and Emily’s engagement party and brought to trial. It is revealed that she has been imprisoned before (for the aforementioned leaflet distribution) and is declared “incurably hysterical.” It is advised that she be institutionalized immediately and undergo and emergency hysterectomy. I’ll admit that one of the reasons that this was a favorite moment was to feel all the people around me that had been laughing throughout the movie suddenly get quiet and shocked. But I also loved it because after the predictable thing happens- Granville is asked to testify verifying that Charlotte is hysterical- the unpredictable follows. Granville agrees that Charlotte is overly passionate, violent, and intolerably irritating, and most movies would follow this pronouncement with a tearful “How could you betray me?!” from Charlotte as she’s hauled off to prison, with a following scene where Granville goes to the jail to apologize and win her heart. Hysteria, however, has Granville standing up to the superiors of whom he’s spent the whole movie in fear and declaring that London would be a sadder place without Charlotte’s philanthropy. It’s a wonderful moment of solidarity between the two, especially because Granville and Charlotte aren’t exactly best friends at this point.
Hysteria is a well-written, well-performed script, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied with it, I’m glad that a movie was made about the subject. Historical comedies are rare, so this is definitely one to check out! And if that doesn’t pull you in, well- there are lots of sex jokes, okay? So go.