Exhausted by blockbusters? Here’s a small film to treasure. Hysteria is a movie of effortless charm and good humor. It’s the mostly true story of the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, told as a clever love story, an amusing comedy of manners and a smart message movie.
The film is set in the 1880s, as a plague swept London. The epidemic was “female hysteria,” a catchall diagnosis for erotically frustrated Victorian ladies. In that prudish era, physicians were oblivious to their patients’ conjugal needs, and it was unthinkable for women to broach the subject. Thus, well-heeled patients sought relief for their malaise through a doctor’s pelvic massage.
That specialty was not the preference of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, performing with an awkward, adorable reticence). After the progressive thinker loses his hospital post for arguing in favor of germ theory and against leeches, however, he’s grateful for any new employment.
He joins the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, winningly stuffy), earning a good salary and the attention of his employer’s demure daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). The handsome young practitioner soon multiplies the clinic’s caseload, but trouble looms. He’s agonized by hand cramps suffered through “pleasuring half the women in the city,” and he gets no sympathy from Dalrymple’s eldest daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, as cool and fresh as running water).
A feminist who runs a settlement house for the poor, Charlotte considers her father’s practice frivolous. Granville’s rescue comes from an unexpected corner: his best friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett, whose bone-dry line readings could hit a bull’s-eye from 100 yards). The wealthy, eccentric inventor transforms his design for a motorized feather duster to create the first electric vibrator. But how will the blue-nosed Victorians react to this breakthrough? How will the reserved Mortimer find love with cheeky, free-spirited Charlotte, who is clearly the woman he needs?
Hysteria finds smart, contemporary social satire in the customs, fears and aspirations of an earlier time. The script, by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is trim and full of zingers. Director Tanya Wexler tells the story with a solid comic rhythm and an eye for sumptuous period detail. Her camera fragrantly evokes unsanitary sick wards and bouquet-strewn grand balls. She records the aghast reactions of well-bred Londoners whose park stroll is disrupted by the sight of amorous ducks doing what comes naturally. There are many reminders that the antique mores shackling these characters echo issues we’re wrestling with today.
The climax arrives, surprisingly, in a high-stakes courtroom scene where Charlotte is threatened with a forced hysterectomy to cure her “hysterical” advocacy for the underclass. The swerve into drama raises the emotional ante and gives Gyllenhaal a fine showcase for a rebellious speech from the docket. Hysteria could hardly close with anything but a happy ending, but it’s a squeaker.
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