Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria makes its point as a lighthearted comedy about the invention of the vibrator once a woman breaks out into an aria from “La Traviata” after receiving hands-on stimulation from her doctor. Hysteria is not the average romantic comedy, nor is it a biographical account of how the vibrator was invented in London, circa 1880. The Victorian prudeness is front and center in Hysteria; you will never hear the word orgasm spoken by any character, especially the prim and proper Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who believes his method of curing hysteria in women is to “relieve tensions in the womb” by manual stimulation of the clitoris, another word unspoken of in the film. It would be inappropriate to consider that women suffering from hysteria, a condition affecting the majority of women during the era that has them depressed, suffering nymphomania, anxious, or generally feeling malaise, is to in fact pleasure them sexually. Their husbands would be mortified to think they were not pleasing their wives, or that they should.
The large amounts of women suffering from hysteria leads them all to Dr. Dalrymple’s office, and he no longer can do the job himself. An extra pair of hands, literally, is needed and he finds them in the progressive thinking young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy). Granville is a man of the Victorian age but he is also a doctor who believes medicine needs to change–his belief in germ theory is called “poppycock” by the doctors of the day, and thus he cannot keep or procure a job in any London hospital. Finding the position with Dr. Dalrymple appears to be a dream come true, as the pay is more than gracious and it includes boarding as well. Granville has no idea just what he is getting into though until he meets with the first patient to observe Dalrymple’s “method,” the look of shock and slight horror given by Dancy’s Granville sends the viewer into a bout with laughter. More so because the modern viewer is quite aware of what the Doctor is doing, and the fact that it is seen as a cure for a medical condition is outrightly hilarious. Add in the specially created examination chair, where velvet curtains obscure the woman’s genitalia, and the special oils used for the procedure and the absurdity that surrounds Hysteria shines brightly.
Hysteria is not solely about doctors curing women with “problems.” Screenwriter’s Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer also dip into the feminist movement of the time, and thus set-up a perfectly executed, if not quick and simple, romantic triangle between Darcy’s Granville and Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters–the youngest, Emily (Felicity Jones), being a [perfect] woman trained in phrenology, the eldest Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a spitfire feminist who runs a settlement home for women and children in London’s undesirable neighborhood of the East End and scoffs at the idea that a man should control a woman. It is Charlotte who makes Granville approach things differently, even his work curing hysterical women and where his future will lead. Gyllenhaal’s strong and poignant performance, always performing above expectations and without lack of resolve, gives a stronger resonance to the picture. Hysteria no longer is simply a comedic farce about the invention of the vibrator, it is a woman’s liberation picture, displaying the tough resolves of women at the time and the endurance to make change.
The elephant in the room continues to be the vibrator, as it is what was promised in the plot summary of Hysteria. There is nothing to fear here as the story of the invention is told, and quite funnily. Rupert Everett plays a small supporting role as an inventor friend of Granville. His current project is a motorized feather duster. When Granville suffers career ending hand cramps, since “treating” so many women is hard work, and he is VERY good at it from their reactions, his hands are suffering. The massaging action of the feather duster helps to cure his ails, all the while giving him an idea. The idea is to make a mechanical massager that could be used down there on a woman. With the help of a local friend, and prostitute, they find it works very well, so well it will change the landscape of medicine (?) and “female troubles” forever.
When it comes to poking fun at the stuffy and uptight Victorian age, and the ridiculousness of their medical practices, Hysteria hits the mark time and again. It moves along swiftly, adding bouts of humor as it goes while always remembering it is a romance as well. The inclusion of a silly character side-story with Charlotte being accused of having hysteria and nearly being imprisoned and given a hysterectomy could have been excluded. Then again it is the clutch that gets Granville to admit his feelings and accept that the future is going to be much more progressive at home, and at work for him. Hysteria leaves a smile on your face afterwards, and a wicked grin for the duration of the film creeps on your lips because this is all so inappropriate, and at the same time oh so much fun. Who knew the invention of the hooker helper, I mean mechanical vibrator, could be so entertaining and informative at the same time (wink, wink).
Directed by Tanya Wexler
Produced by Sarah Curtis, Judy Cairo, and Tracey Becker
Story and Screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer
Original Story by Howard Gensler
Mortimer Granville: Hugh Dancy
Charlotte Dalrymple: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Dr. Robert Dalrymple: Jonathan Pryce
Emily Dalrymple: Felicity Jones
Edmund St. John-Smythe: Rupert Everett
Fannie Molly: Ashley Jensen