Shaking up things in Victorian times
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, May 25, 2012
Set in Victorian England, the loosely fact-based “Hysteria” is billed as the story of the invention of the electric vibrator. And it is that. Physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) really did invent the now famous appliance, and it really was once used as a therapeutic treatment for a number of maladies -- including insomnia and frigidity -- that were imagined to be caused by a malfunctioning of the female anatomy. (The word “hysteria” comes from the Greek name for the uterus.)
But the film -- directed with a sure hand by Tanya Wexler from an amusing script by the husband-and-wife team Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer -- is no documentary. It’s happy to get the big facts broadly right, as long as it’s allowed to have a little fun with the rest.
The film also is a comedy about the discovery of the female orgasm.
The “O” word itself is never mentioned. The cries of delight, expressions of ecstasy and rapturous physical convulsions that Granville’s patients undergo after he begins an apprenticeship with Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) -- a physician who specializes in treating hysteria via manual massage of the affected area -- are referred to throughout the film as “paroxysms.” In an age of medical leeches and debate over “germ theory,” it was thought impossible for a woman to experience sexual pleasure without penetration.
Well, not everyone thought that.
Dalrymple’s feisty and intelligent daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) knows better. A thoroughly modern woman, she runs a kind of soup kitchen/homeless shelter and has befriended prostitutes such as Molly (Sheridan Smith), who volunteers to try out Mortimer’s invention when he becomes sidelined with carpal tunnel syndrome.
No, they don’t call it that in the film, but it’s clearly what’s going on with his sore hand. The Dyers’ screenplay includes a number of nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to contemporary times, many via the character of Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett). An apparently gay aristocrat living off his family’s money, Edmund is something of a gearhead. It’s Edmund’s electric feather duster, in fact, that Mortimer adapts for his own, er, medical purposes. In one scene, Edmund is shown having what must surely have been the first instance of telephone sex, on an early prototype of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.
So is the movie. If it never rises to greatness, it may be because it’s also a fairly formulaic romcom, in that Mortimer and Charlotte are clearly meant for each other, despite the fact that he’s engaged to Dalrymple’s other daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Emily is a mousy and obedient paragon of virtue who practices the “science” of phrenology. The love triangle powers most of the film’s forward momentum.
The most interesting thing about “Hysteria,” however, is Gyllenhaal. Her Charlotte -- who at one point is threatened with institutionalization and a forced hysterectomy to “cure” her willfulness -- is a force of nature, breezy and ferocious at the same time.
And her relationship with Mortimer is actually kind of sweet. When he shows up with a gift-wrapped box after she’s released from jail, you half expect it to contain a vibrator. (Yes, the film is just that silly.) Instead, it’s a winter coat. The scene is set in the snow, and Charlotte is wearing only a light dress.
That the parcel doesn’t contain the single object that “Hysteria” seems most obsessed with isn’t just a relief. It’s proof that the movie, in the end, understands that what many women want -- as much as an endless supply of “paroxysms” -- is a man who really cares.
Contains sexually suggestive material.