Despite being trapped in the constricted 1880’s, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a forward-thinker, a believer in germ theory (can you imagine a time when doctors chalked the existence of germs up to a theory?), meaning that he doesn’t fit in with his counterparts at London’s many hospitals, which is why he’s been fired from just about all of them. Desperate for a position – any kind of position – the good doctor lands an assistant job at Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic, working for the rich and popular doctor who specializes in something very, very unique: the treatment of female hysteria. Traditionally speaking, “hysteria” was used as a blanket term of any kind of lady trouble for centuries, with the term originating in 4th century BCE. Hysteria was seen as a particular scourge on ladies in the Victorian era – “the plague of our time” – and was believed to effect half of the female population. Dalrymple eases his patients by way of a procedure referred to as “pelvic massage.”
You can guess what “pelvic massage” really was. No, really, you can. There’s a picture up top and everything.
Mortimer snaps up the job and begins training, approaching his subjects in a very clinical manner – both he and Dalrymple act as if their “treatments” are purely medicinal, no more personal than yanking a tooth or setting a bone. Of course, it’s not just the two doctors who look at their “pelvic massages” in such a way, just about everyone in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria refuses to acknowledge just what it is that’s going on below the waist. The only person who seems hip to what a “hysterical paroxysm” really is (hint: it’s an orgasm) happens to be the brash, out-spoken, headstrong Charlotte Dalyrmple (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Gyllenhaal’s character understands the nature of hysteria, pelvic massages, and hysterical paroxysms in a no-nonsense manner, just as mystified as the audience that no one has bothered to figure the damn thing out. Unlike her father and her mild-mannered sister (Felicity Jones in a totally throwaway role), Charlotte not only understands what’s going on in the world (beyond rich women getting off under the guise of a medical issue), she’s out to change it – like Mortimer, she’s a modern person in a backward time. Of course she charms him. As unexpected as their abbreviated courtship is, both Dancy and Gyllenhaal are marvelously fun to watch, consistently charming and amusing, even when the rest of the film falls flat.
While Granville did indeed help invent the world’s first electric vibrator, the film’s screenwriters, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, have taken significant liberties with his story. Granville didn’t work for a Dr. Dalrymple (or even another doctor with Dalrymple’s precise focus), he wasn’t entangled in a love triangle with two sisters, he didn’t even invent his “Granville’s Hammer” for the purpose of relieving hysteria. In fact, Granville was mortified when he discovered what his device was being used for (and, apparently, even tried to stop it being used in that fashion). What the Dyers and Wexler have done with Hysteria is to take a small kernel of fact, popping it up into one great, big puffy bit. It’s a forgivable cinematic take on things, as Granville’s true life story reads as pretty dry, and it’s an admirable way to convey what boils down to historical trivia.
Hysteria does have a tremendous amount of fun with its subject matter, playing it for all manner of laughs, sight gags, and slips of tongue. The film is relentlessly light-hearted and fluffy, making even its toughest moments feel airy as a souffle. It’s an exceedingly convenient way to present the story, as the history of hysteria as diagnosis is a complicated one, a “medical condition” that hinges on such heavy topics as sexism, equality between the sexes, and a lack of understanding regarding not just sex as an act but sex as a means to bond relationships. Basically, calling a woman “hysterical” was a quick way to declare her to be nutty, unstable, insane, and inconsequential. While the more dramatic effects of declaring a woman to be truly hysterical come into play late in the film, Wexler keeps the entire enterprise humming right along, lighter than air, and even more transparent and utterly weightless.
The film clocks in at a swift 95 minutes – a too swift 95 minutes, really, as the film packs in plot point after plot point, skipping and skimming merrily over all sorts of crucial bits, important pieces of character development, which means Hysteria delivers some real clunkers of development. There’s a lot of “wait, how did we get here?” in the film, particularly in its final third, and Hysteria could have quite easily stretched on for another half an hour. As is, it’s a bit of a fast and loose take on history that’s never nearly as pleasing or complex as it should be. There’s plenty of paroxysm here, but not nearly enough massage to make it really pop.
The Upside: Elevated by pleasing performances and a frequently amusing and fluffy tone, Hysteria is the sex-themed movie you can take your parents to see.
The Downside: Wexler and the Dyers’ attempts to turn the history of the vibrator indeed a fun film is admirable, but the film presents a way too clean and compact view of both history and Dr. Granville himself; creative takes on history (i.e. making up the good doctor’s romantic travails) are fine enough, but not when their service cuts away at anything truly interesting and meaningful.
On the Side: The vibrator was the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.