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Monday, November 12, 2012

What does sex have to do with it: Hope Springs vs Hysteria

Here we have two sex comedies that couldn't be less typical of this occasionally funny yet largely embarrassing sub-genre. Hope Springs came out a couple of weeks ago, but it makes sense to review it along with this week's Hysteria as a single piece. On with the show then...

When one thinks of sex comedies, presumably the last place your mind would go would be to either a film about an (older) middle-aged couple trying to reintroduce some sparks into their marriage or a film about the invention of the vibrator in 19th century England. And yet, here we have two films that are keen to make their mark on a genre that is known for having its fair share of gratuitous nudity, highly sexualised profanity and typically young, attractive people doing all sorts of unspeakable things to one another, by not including any of the above.

The former is Hope Springs, a low-key comedy drama that stars Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as a middle aged couple who go, at her insistence and his constant protests, to a couple's therapist (played entirely straight, but very sympathetically by Steve Carell) to try and inject some life back into a marriage that has the two barely communicating and just about never sleeping in the same bed together. The key to Carell's character's therapy lies in forced physical intimacy between the two - from simply holding one another; all the way to going all the way - which results in plenty of discomfort for the couple, but so much more for the viewers who are constantly torn between embarrassment at viewing so private a relationship and laughing at the way it all plays out.   

It's an intimate film that never hurries its pace and isn't afraid to fall into some unabashed sentiment when the situation calls for it and is even less afraid to make its audience feel as uncomfortable as it is possible to be without the screen presence of Ricky Gervais. Squirms and laughs are offered in abundance, but it has, at its core, a very warm heart that ensures that you'll be crushed at the very thought that this couple might not make it through the film intact.

With its brilliantly witty script and truly sensational performances - Carell is as humane and likable as ever; Streep reigns it in for one of her best, most vulnerable low-key performances in a while and Jones simply offers what may well be the best physical performance of the year so far - Hope Springs is a very good little film that offers plenty of heart - and nausea - with its sex. Just don't go see it with your parents - or for that matter, your kids.

The same, as it so happens, is also largely true of Hysteria. It certainly doesn't have Hope Spring's squirm-quotient and it's also far more reserved, but the way it tackles its subject is both witty and totally unexpected - and again entirely lacking in anything that can ever be called "smut". The film follows Hugh Dancy as a young doctor in Victorian England whose radical ideas about medicine - giving more credence to germs than leeches, for example - forces his to to join the only medical practice that would have him: Dr Dalrymple's (Jonathan Price) practice for the treatment of "hysteria" in wealthy, upper class women.

"Hysteria", of course, is the "medical affliction" that affects either unmarried or divorced women or ones who are oddly somewhat estranged from their husbands and the "treatment", as you may have guessed, consists of doctors eliciting certain "physical spasms" through "highly specialized massages". This is the exactly the sort of film for which the air-quote was all but invented. We know what they're talking about, they know what they're talking about, but neither of us will admit to it, even if we do spend the entire time winking at one another.

The story of the invention of the vibrator could have been played as a crude bit of British naughtiness or worse, as a dry history lesson but is instead played out as a wonderfully light British comedy where winking innuendo is only one of its many tricks, rather than its only crutch. Apparently, the events that lead towards the discovery and creation of this handy (or hands-free, as the case may be) accessory are fairly accurately portrayed by the film, but the whole thing does play out as an almost unbelievable farce - a point that is driven home all the more by the film's breathless pace, its hilariously droll dialogue and a show-stealing turn by Rupert Everett who is clearly having the time of his life here.

Slightly less successful is the subplot about Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, Charlotte Darymple, who constantly goes against her father's ideas of station and gender roles as she spends most of her days helping out London's less fortunate, rather than marrying an eligible suitor and spending her days in docile domesticity  It nicely encapsulates the rise of feminism and the crumbling of old class systems and is an important part of the overall narrative, but its relatively heavy subject matter doesn't entirely gel with feather-light tone of the rest of the film.  

Still, it's a minor complaint in what is otherwise a massively enjoyable and also beautifully observed take on a tricky subject.

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