I’m going to grade “Hysteria” on a curve. It’s far from perfect, and its preachiness does wear thin. But it’s got a great premise, a sly sense of humor and a genuine interest in the little-known history it documents. I’d say this movie is probably a B- or C+, but I’m rounding up to a solid B.
“Hysteria” presents a highly fictionalized account of the invention of the vibrator, which was once considered a medical device, used to treat women suffering from female hysteria, a once-common diagnosis for a wide range of symptoms, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, a lack of sexual desire, insomnia, irritability and a tendency to cause trouble. The film revolves around an earnest young doctor named Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who keeps getting fired because he insists on cleaning patients’ wounds and won’t stop talking about germs, which his older colleagues regard as a bunch of nonsense. Then he meets an older doctor who will employ him — Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who treats women for hysteria. When Granville says he doesn’t know anything about hysteria, Dr. Dalrymple gravely informs him that half the women in London are afflicted with it.
Granville is happy for the job, and also quite smitten with the doctor’s younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). He’s less smitten with the doctor’s older daughter, Charlotte, but we know that he will eventually fall in love with her, because she’s played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she’s the star of the film. Granville shows an aptitude for treating hysteria, which is done manually, until the patient achieves what was then called “hysterical paroxysm” and is today known as orgasm. But he also develops carpal tunnel syndrome, and risks losing his job, as well as Emily’s heart. His wealthy friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (a scene-stealing Rupert Everett) is fond of technology and gadgets and one night, while hanging out at John-Smythe’s, he becomes interested in his friend’s electric fan. A lightbulb goes off, as Granville realizes he can solve all his problems by modifying the fan, and using it to treat hysteria, sparing his sore and aching hands.
At heart, “Hysteria” is a cheerful romantic comedy from a feminist perspective. It is detailed about the mores and practices of the time, and finds great humor in them, but is not a sexually explicit film. The film works best when it keeps things light, and sometimes feels a little like a sitcom, though not in a bad way. (After failing to satisfy one of his patients, Granville exclaims, “This has never happened to me before!” — a funny line that wouldn’t be out of place on a show like “Friends.”)
Where the film falters is in its desire to have a message, and to hammer this message over the heads of moviegoers. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a fantastic actress, but her characters spends far too much time speechifying and lecturing her friends and family about women’s rights and the needs of the poor. Her character often sounds and behaves like she was beamed in from the 21st century, and I had a difficult time accepting her as a real person. I don’t doubt that Victorian England had its share of bold, intelligent and crusading women, but it’s unlikely that many of them sounded like Charlotte. The film also overreaches in its desire to show how the treatment of women in the late 1800s is similar to today, and this occasional heavy-handedness saps “Hysteria” of its charm, especially toward the end.
The cast helps carry the film through its rough patches. The actors are all in high spirits, and conduct themselves accordingly, as if in on a very funny joke. Director Tanya Wexler doesn’t shy away from jokes, but she’s serious about her history, despite the liberties she takes with it. (Granville did patent the first vibrator, called Granville’s Hammer, but the Internet informs me that he used it to treat muscular disorders; other doctors applied it to the treatment of hysteria.) In the end, the film is just too good-natured and interesting for me to be overly negative about it. If you’re looking for something a little offbeat and mildly enjoyable, “Hysteria” might do the trick.
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