Apologies to the horror hounds that have landed here by mistake, misled by the film’s title. This Hysteria is a period comedy about the invention of the vibrator, or more specifically, one of the first electrical appliances used to treat women diagnosed with hysteria, a catch-all term used in the late 18th century for women suffering any number of maladies from frigidity, to melancholia, to anxiety and even “a tendency to cause trouble.”
Sure, many men may ultimately classify the film in the horror category since the wondrous little paroxysm-producer provided not only a means for women to independently explore their sexuality, but it also helped set into motion the forward-thinking spirit that piggy-backed the women’s suffragette movement of the time. And that’s the jumping off point for the story written by the screenwriting team of Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer.
In 1880 London, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is struggling to establish his medical career. While he understands the latest doctrines in medical practices, sanitation and germ theory, many of his colleagues still cling to leeches and hacksaws, dismissing the young upstart and his radical ideas.
But Granville’s optimism changes when he takes a job at the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London’s premier practitioner in women’s medicine. Dr. Dalrymple’s office is jammed with well-dressed London society women Jonesing for the good doctor’s cure, a thorough vulva massage shown by “modern” medicine to nudge the uterus back in place, thereby relieving the symptoms of hysteria. Business is booming and Granville is hired on the spot as “another pair of hands.”
And his luck doesn’t stop there. It just so happens that his new employer has a pair of attractive daughters, one of which, Emily (Felicity Jones) is eager to be married off. She’s the epitome of all things a rightly Victorian woman should be: dutiful; well-behaved; and exquisitely turned out. Soon Granville and Emily are engaged to be married. But we know from the moment we first lay eyes on Dalrymple’s older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the prerequisite romantic-comedy clash of opposites will come into play. She’s a firebrand through-and-through, fighting for women’s rights at the expense and detriment of her own personal wellbeing. It’s her fierce commitment to beliefs in social reform, universal healthcare, public education, and women’s suffrage that challenge Granville and ultimately lead her father to wonder if she too might be afflicted with hysteria.
Thankfully, Gyllenhaal saves the film from becoming a one-joke-and-done routine. It’s certainly appropriate the movie’s fire comes from a woman, but without Gyllenhaal’s moxy, magnetic charisma, and unwavering British accent, the film would have nothing in its favor. Dancy as Granville is adequate but there’s not much more than a two-dimensional type rather than a whole individual.
Business at the women’s clinic is doing so well, it’s not long before Granville finds himself the victim of a nagging case of Carpal tunnel syndrome. Thanks to his extremely rich flat-mate Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), an eccentric inventor, Granville finds relief for his aching hand from Smythe’s latest contraption, an electric-powered feather duster that Granville soon takes in another direction when he discovers the healing power of the device’s vibrating action. A saucy prostitute named Molly (Sheridan Smith) willing to take the device for a test drive (for a pittance, of course), and the rest is history.
Ultimately, Hysteria isn’t much more than a modest trifle of a movie, soon to be forgotten before we hit the parking lot. Though Gyllenhaal’s performance does provide a bit of a tickle here and there, and always makes the film better when she’s on the screen, the filmmakers fail to construct an interesting movie around a one-joke premise. There are certainly no calls for a cigarette after it’s all said and done.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content.
Director: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal; Jonathan Pryce; Hugh Dancy; Rupert Everett
Genre: Comedy | Romance
Tagline: A comedy about the birth of the vibrator in Victorian England.
Memorable Movie Quote: "What do you call that little thing?"
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site: www.sonyclassics.com/hysteria
Release Date: June 1, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Victorian London is brought to life in vivid colour as a young doctor (Dancy) struggles to establish himself while confronting the gutsy daughter of his boss (Gyllenhaal).
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