Hysteria **1/2 (out of five)
Hysteria, the third film from director Tanya Wexler, is frustrating, sometimes to the point of infuriating. Based on a true story, the subject matter couldn’t be more fantastic and fun: how an accepted medical method of treating “hysteria” in women in England (and other European countries) in the late nineteenth century – by stimulating their clitorises to orgasm, often on a weekly basis – lead to one doctor’s hand-cramps, which in turn lead to his mate inventing the vibrator. It’s a tall tale that happens to be true, and, in the right hands, it could be wonderfully funny.
I’m not sure that Wexler’s were the right hands. The film is certainly directed to be funny – performances are encouraged to go over-the-top across the board, and sight gags abound – but it very rarely is funny (I laughed out loud once, which is well down on the international critics’ convention of six out-loud laughs doth a fair comedy make).
The frustration lies within this collision between the inherent wonderfulness of the material and its’ lackluster realisation. The period design is all terrific and some of the acting is very appealing (not all, tragically). But the script is often ham-fisted, hammering home points and concepts that were easily understood to begin with, and the direction wastes excellent opportunities constantly, then surprises with a sudden, delightful sequence.
Wexler’s previous two films (Finding North, 1998, and Ball in the House, 2001) were both American works, and I think she’s found making an English period movie too much of a candy store, and has gone overboard. Thus all the supplementary characters – especially those over fifty – have crazy red faces, wild muttonchops, ludicrous laughs, huge bug eyes, super-posh voices, and all manner of combinations of the above, making the film feel like it’s set in a Do-It-Yourself BBC Comedy from the 1980s. She’s also cast Hugh Dancy as the lead character of Dr. Mortimer Granville, he of the hand-sprain (who must and will eventually play Colin Firth’s younger brother) and seemingly directed him to over-enunciate, over-elaborate, over-physicalize, and generally overdo everything. It’s like the rest of the cast were given body mikes but he was told he’d have to be picked up by a boom in the corner of the room.
Luckily, he’s supported by some terrific performers, who, although they all engage in their bits of scenery chewing, seem somehow to do it with more aplomb. Jonathan Pryce, as the best manual stimulater in the business, is his usually excellent self; Felicity Jones is extremely appealing as his daughter; and Rupert Everett brings some excellent physicl comedy to his role as Edmund St. John-Smythe, the actual inventor of the vibrator. It’s a perfect role for Everett, one of the great British movie stars of all time in my opinion, and who still looks absolutely smashing.
Most wonderful – and surprising – of all, however, is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte, Pryce’s other daughter, a progressive feminist, caregiver, and general troublemaker of the most charitable kind. Gyllenhaal somehow manages to find some aspect of “Englishness” and inhabits it completely – she is so believable as a Brit that I wondered if maybe she has been all along (I didn’t really wonder this, but she is thoroughly convincing). She’s so good as to eventually balance out Dancy’s hamminess, so that by the end, this very uneven film manages to be at least somewhat sweet and moving. But ah, what might have been.
The Curse of the Gothic Symphony ***
Lesser-known British composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is ludicrously complicated and demanding, requiring over 600 musicians and choir singers. It is so rarely performed that Brian wrote that he was sure it was cursed. While this makes for a fun title and gives this enjoyable documentary a theme for its graphic design, it is not about the supposed “curse” at all but rather about one man – and, over time, one group’s – obsessive attempt to perform the symphony in the city of Brisbane.
And obsessive it is. The film follows producer Gary Thorpe and Maestro John Curro over seven years, as they keep attempting to mount the symphony, constantly getting shot down due to all sorts of obstacles, from funding, finding enough musicians and choristers, and securing an appropriate venue, to disdain from fellows within the Brisbane music community for the work, the project or both.
The personalities involved are interesting (and obsessed) enough to keep the film entertaining for its 90 minute running time; if you’re a fun of Brian’s work it will obviously be a must-see; if not, it’s an interesting enough introduction to this quirky composer (and the members of the Havergal Brian Appreciation Society, who are really quirky). Extremely similar in theme, structure and tone to last year’s Mrs. Carey’s Concert, it suffers in comparison to that exquisite film, but it certainly stands alone as a swift, entertaining look at a very particular artistic quest.