The standard of mental health care in the world has improved tremendously in relatively recent history. Just over a hundred years ago, the go to solution was dropping off troublesome relatives in a sanatorium for an extended or even permanent stay. Bodies were irreparably altered to create more docile patients and this was deemed the right thing to do. Hysteria is a film all about one of the last mainstays of "why bother learning the truth when we can lie to ourselves for our own comfort?" mental health care. Hysteria, the condition, was at one point viewed to be an epidemic, with upwards of half of the female population unable to control their mood, temperament, or willingness to bow down to men at every turn.
The film deals with a young doctor learning all about the revolutionary private massage technique that can boost a woman's spirits through purely physiological means. When the nonstop flow of patients eager to be...treated by the handsome young man becomes harmful to his own health, he enlists a friend obsessed with electricity to create an electronic massager for the same purpose.
Hysteria is a surprisingly sweet comedy about breaking through boundaries and the absurdity of treating conditions you have no real knowledge about. The older doctor who teaches the younger doctor the technique has an outspoken daughter who tells him again and again that Hysteria is not a real condition. He, in turn, diagnoses her with one of the most severe cases of Hysteria he's ever encountered. The push and pull between father and daughter, the old and the new, defines the shape and rhythm of Hysteria.
For all the greatness director Tanya Wexler coaxes out of such a strange subject for a quasi-romantic historical comedy, the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer leaves much to be desired. This is a film set in mid-18th Century England. The characters randomly switch from the imperial system--liters, meters, etc.--to US customs units--inches, pounds, etc.--with no consistency or predictability. The language and grammatical structures are accurate to the period until they are blatantly anachronistic.
All the good will built up time and again by a skilled hand behind the lens is diminished with every abuse of period accuracy. Once you establish full period design--bustles, top hats, cravates, and metal shoe cleaners outside every office building--you have to stick to it. If you want to pull the Baz Luhrmann anachronistic history, you better establish it from the start and stick to it.
Hysteria is a period film that magically time travels every five minutes or so with something so outrageously modern it throws you out of it. A charming little story with excellent acting and a sharp wit is brought down by lax screenwriting.
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