Run Time: 100 minutes
Hysteria is about one of the greatest discoveries in history: the vibrator! You heard of it? Oh, it’s a nifty little device that brings seconds of pure ecstasy down below. Beforehand, doctors were all in a fuss over what caused women such excitement with the symptoms of shortness of breath, nervousness, muscle spasms, insomnia, and faintness. What was the diagnosis? The doctors deemed it “hysteria paroxysm”. Uh huh.
By now, most of us are aware that these are the indications of an orgasm. We must look back at this ordeal humorously, as a way of appreciating how much the medicine field has advanced since the 19th century. Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria is in that appreciative spirit, with no attempt for an epic or historical lecture. It is a light comedy that playfully derides the foolish methods doctors went about their work back in the Victorian day.
American physician Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is perhaps 40 years ahead of his time. He is overly earnest to all of his patients and his mind moves against the grain of the techniques of current medical practices. It will come to little surprise that he was the inventor of the vibrator. The first one was called Granville’s Hammer. It would be considered the solution to treating hysteria, that is until doctors realized they were treating orgasms.
And so Hysteria is about Granville’s prior experiences as an aspiring physician. The movie is not a traditional period piece or a purist exercise in recounting this series of events. Those movies tend to play on a serious note and abide rigorously to historical accuracy. Hysteria, well, it’s about as serious as any movie could (or, is it, should?) be about the invention of the vibrator. Wexler turns this story more into a romantic fairytale, taking the strict and moral scruples of the Victorian era and easing those elements into light comedy.
Under that formula, Hysteria is endearing yet superficial. Crowd-pleasing on the surface, pleasantly empty within. Dancy and Gyllenhaal provide the best performances in the film, as two characters a step ahead of their time, only Dancy’s character is better able to cope with the present. Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte, a pugnacious feminist and daughter of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dr. Dalrymple has taken Granville under his wing to help run his medical practice, which involves treating carriers of this so-called hysteria paroxysm.
Their method is amusing. Dalrymple and Granville lie the female patient down and place a small tent over their waist. One of them dresses their hands in oil and then reaches beneath and massages the patient’s genitals. This, they thought, was to effect a cure not to stimulate. When the patient responded with epileptic-like excitement, the doctors figured this was progress. Wexler plays these moments to a lighthearted musical score that shares the awareness of the audience that these doctors are out of their element.
There is a side bit with Dalrymple’s youngest daughter Emily (Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones), whose innocence brings humorous discomfort to Granville when father Dalrymple proposes those two marry. In fact, one theme that resonates in Hysteria is the prevailing transition of a prudish Victorian era to one of greater sexual awareness. We sense promiscuity is on the horizon, especially with Granville’s romantic fate – one that promises opportunities for intercourse.
For the above movie I’ve described, it fits that all the characters find their place. The vibrator is invented and a huge trend in pleasure seeking is launched. Granville becomes a legend and all he had to do was use his hands.
This sounds rather ticklish and it is. Hysteria doesn’t have a lick of masterpiece about it, but nothing really wretched. It’s mostly good fun, the performers are good company, and the ending – a quirky quote about ducks and good ol’ perambulation – leaves us smiling, while we depart from a story where all the characters are well and have basked in the tidy nature of this “vibrant” fairytale. Ha.