Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On its own terms, perfectly fair ones, too, Tanya Wexler's HYSTERIA is pure delight

Those terms mentioned above? Well, HYSTERIA -- a Victorian era rom-com set in 1880 London -- is all about discovering the cure for those "hysterical" symptoms with which doctors diagnosed the women of the day. The movie is naughty, but not dirty; feminist (and funny rather than strident); and so progressive it'll have Republicans and fundamentalists churning their knickers into a double twist, double quick. These people had best stay home and pray -- to Ms Rand or their version of Jesus -- because the movie will knock their blocks out from under them, even as it has the rest of the audience leaving the theater on a sweet cloud of laughter and good will (toward men and, particularly, women). The film's distributor Sony Pictures Classics missed perhaps the greatest marketing opportunity of the year by not opening the movie last week -- as the perfect alternative entertainment for Mother's Day.

The first thing you may notice about Tanya Wexler's film (the director is shown at right) -- besides its very funny opening depicting Victorian upper class women of all types describing their "symptoms" -- is how interesting, how much fun are the various characters on view. There's Hugh Dancy's quixotic doctor, shown below, all forward thinking where medical science is concerned but something of a prude regarding a woman's place and conventional morality. When this very good doctor comes into the family fold and the hysteria-fueled medical practice of Jonathan Pryce, he meets the two women -- Pryce's daughters, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Felicity Jones -- who will concern him from then on: Ms Jones as his possible paramour, Ms Gyllenhaal as his combination goading savior and bête noire.

One of the things that makes Hysteria the delight that it is is Ms Wexler's skillful and easy approach to the material. Nothing here seems labored or pushed. The director may be be no great stylist, but neither is she that dreaded filmmaker who possess oodles of style, little idea of content, and not enough sense to differentiate or mesh. This lady is a direct director: She knows what to give us and how to do it sensibly, economically and entertainingly. She has a light touch, her movie moves fast and is lots of fun. And isn't that, moviegoers, more than half the battle?

I don't know what other reviews will be like, once the movie opens this Friday. But I hope they will be better than the dreck Anthony Lane is feeding us via this week's The New Yorker. "Sorry, Doc. She faked it."? (That's Lane last line.) Of course Lane is speaking metaphorically (I guess) because he clearly was paying no attention to the terrific and very funny actress who handles the "equestrian" climax. She is clearly doing anything but faking it. As for the film not paying attention to the needs of women -- hello, that's what the f-ing movie is all about, from needs sexual to intellectual. But because this is evidently not spelled out in capital letters, Mr. Lane has somehow missed it.

Another sign of Wexler's skill is how well her actors all mesh. Dancy is divine as the forward-thinking male who still has a few miles left to go; ditto Rupert Everett (above, right) as his wealthy friend, inventor and confidante, whose progressive parents foot the bill for much of his life and work. Pryce is fine in a less demanding role than he often has, but it's fun to see him doing comedy again.

Gyllenhaal (at right, above and below) is wonderful -- smart, fast and as appealing as she is strong -- while Jones has the less showy role and fills it with her beauty and, toward the conclusion, a nice sense of growth and change. Hysteria is a charming, progressive fairy tale that mixes love and politics, sex and science. Don't leave before the end credits are over, for Ms Wexler has a final funny and slowly evolving joke to tell us -- which she handles as smartly and frothily as the rest of her film.

Hysteria, from Sony Pictures Classics and just the right length (95 minutes), opens this Friday in New York City at Cinemas 1 2 3, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Sunshine Cinema; and in Los Angeles at The Landmark.  It'll be appearing elsewhere around the country soon, though as of today, I could find no link to playdates.

  Note: At the Sunshine Cinema (New York City),
director Tanya Wexler will appear in person on 
Saturday, May 19 for Q&As after 
the 5:05pm and 7:20pm shows.

All photos are from the film itself, with the exception of Ms Wexler's, 
which is by Larry Busacca and comes courtesy of

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