Hysteria (2011): Film Review

Despite numerous unfortunate clichés in both character and plot, almost all of which may be put down to this film’s being a romantic comedy (a genre that Her Ladyship usually abhors), Hysteria is a rather sweet film that somehow, inexplicably, makes you forgive its many faults and enjoy yourself tremendously in the process. Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer and Howard Gensler somehow manage to turn the invention of the first ever vibrator into a social commentary on West End and East End life in late Victorian London; to address the issue of the repression of women (sexual and otherwise) in the Victorian era; to give us a charming if not-particularly-original love story; and to afford us the opportunity, every now and again, to laugh our heads off at Rupert Everett as he fools around with wires, causes small explosions and reclines on a chaise longue pretending to be Oscar Wilde.

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Doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has just got himself kicked out of his fifth or sixth hospital for the heinous crime of insisting that germs exist. Desperate for money, and disillusioned with a profession that seems to want to cure people without actually helping them, he determines to find himself an utterly mundane position that won’t lead to any further head-butting with his superiors. Such a position is soon forthcoming at the practice of Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), a doctor who specialises in hysteria; hysteria being a polite term for female sexual frustration. Believed by doctors to be an actual disease linked to movements of the uterus (till 1952, Her Ladyship wishes to add); the angry and occasionally insane behaviour that being horny can cause were considered so offensive to the Victorian mentality and so contrary to its conception of womanliness that many of these poor women ended up institutionalised with hysterectomies forcibly performed on them, supposedly for their own good. So, to abate the symptoms of hysteria, a disease that is suffered by ‘half the women in London,’ Doctor Dalrymple spends most of his time bringing women to climax in his consulting rooms with a variety of oils and balms, all the while believing, quite sincerely, that he is performing a perfectly serious medical procedure.

Bless.

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Needless to say that Mortimer turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing, and while he is thrilled to have played so great a part in swelling patient numbers, he is soon beset by constant panic about the blinding pain in his hand; the result, no doubt, of stimulating one clitoris too many. Enter the need for a useful machine, and enter two separate ideals of womanliness to add to poor Mortimer’s troubles: Emily and Charlotte, Doctor Dalrymple’s daughters.

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Emily (Felicity Jones) is, rather predictably, the object of Mortimer’s affections from the very start. Cut from the same cloth as Lucy in Dracula and Laura in The Woman in White, she is the ideal Victorian woman: sweetness, gentleness and submissiveness incarnate. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, is a crass suffragist and philanthropist whose ladylike manners have not survived running a settlement house for the poor in the East End. She’s passionate, tomboyish and a bit of a badass, and takes an instant dislike to Mortimer, whom she sees as joining her father in ministering to the needs of spoilt upper-class housewives who suffer from a bogus condition that never seems to affect the women she works with because they’re too busy worrying where their next meal is going to come from. Mortimer and Charlotte predictably spend most of the film driving each other to distraction in a tidal wave of English wit and stringently-denied sexual attraction, but find common ground in their belief that good health and good doctors should be freely available to all those who need it, regardless of social class or occupation. It just takes Mortimer rather longer than Charlotte to realise that he believes this at all.

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The two sisters that are polar opposites; one overly-virtuous, if likeable, the other wildly intelligent and outspoken, is a feature of the romantic comedy genre that has been done to death and could very well have been spared in this film; poor Emily serving little purpose beyond getting in the way despite a half-hearted attempt to give her a mind of her own in the film’s final act; Charlotte clearly intended to resemble every spirited nineteenth-century heroine from Elizabeth Bennett to Marian Halcombe, but so caught up in this business of resembling that she sometimes forgets to be herself. Nevertheless, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is charming and extremely raw, and she convinces completely as a woman who has no time for one way of life when she has understood how much can be accomplished in another. Her interactions with the residents of her settlement house are disarming and genuine, and she possesses a rare ability to talk to the people she interacts with without seeming to patronise or to distance herself from them on the grounds of her class. She works in frequently-hilarious counterpoint to Mortimer’s buttoned-up and stiff upper lip Victorian-ness, and the sincerity with which she elicits loans and other financial aid to help the poor is both disarming and charismatic.

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The sexual repression of women is quite rightly responsible for a great deal of the darkness and misery that one finds in Victorian literature or in books and films set in the era, and making a romantic comedy with this issue at its heart must have been a challenging idea to bring to fruition. In this regard, Hysteria succeeds very well, and despite the myriad faults and predictability that result from the film’s genre; it is, at the end of the day, a period drama that is extremely funny, touching and just good, clean fun.

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Great ‘Game of Thrones’ Character Anthems Every Fan Should Know.

Her Ladyship tries listening to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones on the way to work, and comes out on the other side with a very short playlist.

Arya Stark – O Death (Jen Titus)

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An abandonment of life and religion for a surer deity than the old gods or the new, this song is a primal and freezingly euphoric hymn that deserts all hope in life and justice, and lingers almost lovingly on the grave with a fearlessness and acceptance that is Arya’s alone…and perhaps the Faceless Men’s. It’s the soundworld of what happens in her head when she whispers her names into the dark, and what rings through her mind when she hisses to Lord Beric that Death is her one true god.

But what is this that I can’t see

With ice cold hands taking hold of me?

When God is gone

And the devil takes hold

Who’ll have mercy on your soul?

 

Sandor Clegane – Break (Three Days Grace)

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The lyrics ‘tonight I start the fire’ assume a very different kind of meaning when put into Sandor’s context. This is the song of a person trapped by themselves, the roughness of enduring this so difficult that it sinks into their very voice. But while this song also expresses Sandor’s desire to escape himself and take control of his own fears, it clings to its own identity and to brutal reality with a searing lack of idealism, for all its mention of ‘higher places.’

Tonight, I start the fire

Tonight, I break away

Break away from everybody

Break away from everything

If you can’t stand the way this place is

Take yourself to higher places.

Daenerys Targaryen – Radioactive (Imagine Dragons)

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The preposterous auspiciousness of the band’s name aside, this song is the sound of waking up from darkness to something that could turn to a blinding light, or to an apocalypse, particularly if we consider Daenerys after she emerges alive from the pyre. It’s the blood that she knows she will spill, and the blood she doesn’t want to spill; it’s the certainty of what she must do and why, and everything that makes it hard to do; it’s Meereen, it’s Drogon, it’s the bones of a child, it’s an ancient madness she fears and that she knows lurks in her blood.

I’m waking up to ash and dust

I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust

I’m breathing in the chemicals

I’m breaking in, shaping up,

Then checking out of the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse.

 

Catelyn Stark – The Other Side (Evanescence)

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The Other Side is what shoots through Catelyn’s head when presented with the bones of her husband. It expresses the longing of a person who has lost someone, but can’t go to them because of what they’ll leave behind. In Catelyn’s case, it’s family, duty, honour. Once Ned dies, Catelyn lives for her children, and then for fewer of her children when she believes that Bran and Rickon are also gone, until she’s clinging to the thought of Sansa, Arya and Robb; all that loss and pain seeming to turn her heart colder and colder as it armours itself.

Counting the days to meet you on the other side

I will always be waiting

Until the day that I see you on the other side

Come and take me home.

Jaime Lannister – Numb (Linkin Park)

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Wildly appropriate if considered in the context of Cersei rather than Tywin, this is a sung, if unspoken cry from the deepest depths of the Jaime of A Feast for Crows, still keenly conscious of a lifetime of being one half of a whole, but starting to get a bit tired of his other half’s bullshit. Being a whole by yourself, and no one else, when you’ve spent most of your life only being a half, is a terrifying transition to make. Still more dreadful is when you’re forced into that solitude by a change that the other person cannot accept; when they persist in clinging almost ferociously to a ‘you’ that no longer exists.

Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?

Holding too tightly

Afraid to lose control

Cause everything that you thought I would be

Is falling apart right in front of you.

 

Sansa Stark – Blinding (Florence + the Machine)

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This song is Sansa after Ned Stark’s execution; a lifetime of utopian dreaming shattering so powerfully that she feels it ‘in the hollows of [her] eyelids.’ Still worse, it’s the horrifying realisation that the person who comprises the very fabric of that dreaming state is a monster. At the same time, however, it’s also an optimistic compulsion to grow up; a deeply-entrenched knowledge that dreams are not the real world, something that Sansa will push away from herself time and time again because dreams are the only way she knows how to seek refuge. As she gets older, however, she does return to it more and more often, until she becomes Alayne Stone and the lines start to blur – her identity a dream and a lie, but the world realer to her than she has ever seen it.

No more dreaming of the dead

As if death itself was undone

No more calling like a crow

For a boy, for a body in the garden

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl

So in love with the wrong world.

 

Tyrion Lannister – Winter in my Heart (Vast)

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The musical manifestation of the aftermath of Shae’s betrayal and ‘where do whores go?’, Winter in my Heart is the Tyrion of late A Feast For Crows and most of A Dance With Dragons; breathing, but not quite alive, heartbreak (Shae) and guilt (Tysha, not to mention Tywin) hollowing him out and making him a broken thing. The continual, haunting repetition of the words ‘but I try,’ however, are the result of a lifetime of being torn down, and of an exceptionally strong spirit that cannot; will not; refuses; to accept it.

I need a summer but the summer’s come and gone

I need a summer but it’s winter in my heart

It’s all the same fucked-up game you played with me

I need to hold you, but you’re never coming back.

 

Tywin Lannister – Running Up That Hill (Placebo)

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Always present in this song is a soft and silent, barely perceptible heartbeat, and for Tywin, its name is Joanna. We don’t know an awful lot about Tywin’s beloved wife beyond the fact that she wore the pants in the Tower of the Hand and that he is incapable of forgiving Tyrion for being born. But the fact that Tywin never speaks of her if he can help it, not to mention the glorious, horrifying dialogue between him and Tyrion in episode one of season three, suggests a whispered fragility at the heart of his soul that he would never admit to in a million years. This whisper of Tywin’s love for Joanna is reflected in every syllable of this song, and the sheer vehemence with which he treats Tyrion in accusing him of killing his own mother to come into the world leaves us in no doubt that if Tywin could change places with Joanna and let her live, he would do it in a heartbeat, for all this constant blathering about staying alive to protect his blood.

And if I only could

Make a deal with God

And get him to swap our places

Be running up that road

Be running up that hill

With no problem.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.