In an age of invention, one man set out to find a medical cure for what ails women…and accidentally electrified our love lives forever. Hysteria is a lighthearted romantic comedy that tells the surprising story of the birth of the electro-mechanical vibrator at the very peak of Victorian prudishness. Academy Award nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, Nanny McPhee Returns) and Hugh Dancy (Adam, Confessions Of A Shopaholic) lead an accomplished cast in this untold tale of discovery.
eyelights: the tongue-in-cheek humour. the stimulating subject. the cast.
eyesores: the slow-going middle-section. the relatively predictable ending.
“Sir, I would be enormously grateful for any position that allowed me to offer relief to my patients, with little chance of killing them.”
‘Hysteria’ is the story fo the invention of the vibrator. It takes place in Victorian Britain, and follows the career of Dr. Mortimer Granville as he tries to fend for himself in an era when “medical” and “science” were not words to be combined. Desperate to heal his clients instead of butchering them, and with few avenues left open to him, he ends up in the cabinet of Dr. Dalrymple, who specializes in the treatment of hysteria.
At the time, hysteria was considered to be a condition of the uterus that caused all sorts of behavioural issues – hence the term hysterectomy, which was sometimes used as a remedy in extreme cases. That, and mental institution. Women who were diagnosed as hysterical were subject to all sorts of now-discredited treatments, many of which were absolutely horrid. Sadly, many ailments fell under the catch-all label of “hysteria”.
Dr. Dalrymple, however, had a more gentle approach: he massaged women’s genital area with his finger, bringing them to orgasm (which he called “paroxysmal convulsions”), thereby relieving them of all the hysterical thoughts and behaviour that plagued them – at least temporarily. Without knowing it, he had tapped into the perfect practice, with returning clients filling up his appointment books. Must of been his bedside manner.
That’s when Granville came in. As Dalrymple’s assistant, he helped to serve a growing, extremely satisfied clientèle. The only problem was that he was getting cramps in his hand, and although he tried to exercise it to keep it in shape, he suffered and eventually couldn’t do the work he was hired to do. But, with the help of a rich techie friend of his, he came up with the idea for using a mechanical vibrating device to stimulate clients in his stead.
‘Hysteria’ tells this story and ties in a romantic subplot for Dr. Granville. As a rising star, he won the favours of Dr. Dalrymple, who suggested that he and his daughter Emily should marry – which suited the good doctor because he and Emily had been growing rather fond of each other. Enter Emily’s sister, Charlotte, a pre-modern feminist who believes in helping the poor and who devotes all her time, efforts and money to making their lives better.
You can guess where this story goes from here.
And that’s why I can’t rate the film much higher than an 8.0: despite the unconventional storyline, it falls into the trap of convention to a certain degree, stripping the picture of its fresh flavour at about the half-way point. What started off as a delightfully saucy little number with a good head on its shoulders ended up being a relatively bland drama by the time that the business of commercializing vibrators comes around.
Thankfully, the closing credits sequence brings back the charm, if for a moment, and winks at its audience a few times before wrapping up once and for all. This perked things up quite admirably. Not to say that the last half of the film was terrible. Hardly. It’s just that it was solid drama without the zest that peppered the picture for the first bit, that’s all. It’s still quite enjoyable. Just less so.
What really helps are the feminist themes that anchor the story:
-Firstly, there’s the notion that any physical, mental or behavioural “disorder” could be attributed to “hysteria”, and that femaledom was considered plagued with the condition. There was a time when women were considered asexual beings, with a completely dead sexual apparatus, the vagina, made strictly for child-bearing. Little was known of their sexual potential, and the idea that women might need sexual satisfaction as much as men did wasn’t even a consideration. Thus, no one could even imagine that “strange thoughts” or anxiety might actually simply be cases of sexual frustration. I love that the film tackles female sexuality by demystifying their ability and desire for sex. It doesn’t ever discuss the fact that only women have a strictly sexual body part, but that was only discovered much later.
-Secondly, it discusses the value of women in Victorian-era Britain and their role as caretakers, wives and mothers. In the form of Charlotte, we are shown a first glimpse at emancipation, at women doing things for themselves, seeking a larger role in society, the right to vote, the right to do what they want with their own bodies, the right to a self-defined future. Charlotte is such a woman: fiery, opinionated and determined to be her own person and to bring about change. If anything, she is the filmmakers’ voice, relaying to audiences the message that equal opportunity is worth all the struggles, all the headaches, all the burned bridges; they are saying that society needs to change and each can contribute by simply pushing with all their might in this direction despite all opposition. Change comes from intention and inner strength.
Another thing that helps is the conviction with which the actors play their characters. Although there are moments of deliciously cheeky humour, the actors all play it quite straight, letting the situations deliver the punchlines. The whole cast was absolutely terrific. However, most notably, Maggie Gyllenhaal, although slightly typecast at this point, played the firebrand Charlotte to perfection. And Jonathan Pryce gave Dr. Dalrymple exact measures of competence and obstinate cluelessness. He’s never been better.
I have no idea how accurate the minutia of ‘Hysteria’ might be, but I found it rather satisfying, as far as romantic docu-dramedy period pieces go (or plain old dramedies, even, for the sake of accessibility). I loved the subject matter, the setting, the plot, the characters, the cast, the direction and the production. Basically, ‘Hysteria’ was all that I might have hoped it could be.
It wasn’t hysterically funny, nor was it entirely electric, but it had enough depth and heart to put a smile on my face. And, for a film about the world’s most revolutionary -and popular- sex toy, one likely couldn’t ask for more.
Molly: “What do you call that little thing?”
Edmund St. John-Smythe: “I was calling it the feather duster.”
Molly: “Well I’d think of something quick, so that a girl knows what to ask for.”
Date of viewing: May 16, 2013