Imagine, if you will, a smirkingly lightweight comedy about the creation of the world’s first electric vibrator. Well, imagine no more, because the Brits have made one. Though nowhere near as odd as Alan Parker’s 1994 biopic about sexual health pioneer Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (The Road to Wellville), Hysteria is an unusual topic for cinematic enshrinement.
Hugh Dancy (King Arthur, “The Big C”) stars as our man Mortimer Granville, a freshly matriculated doctor whose progressive notions run counter to the institutionalized medical understandings of 1880s England. Germs are still a “theory” and leeches are the most regularly prescribed cure for what ails you. Booted from one hospital to the next for his radical ideas about clean bandages and such, young Mr. Granville ends up at the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil). This good doctor specializes in the treatment of “hysteria”—a sort of catchall diagnosis for women who are unhappy, unsatisfied, angry, moody, tired, overworked or otherwise imperfect—which in late-19th century London seems to encompass the whole of the female sex.
The preferred method of “curing” this disease is ... how shall we put this in proper British terms? Digital manipulation of the female reproductive area to the point of paroxysm. So—happy to be a part of such a cutting-edge treatment—straitlaced Dr. Granville takes up the job of “medically massaging” various housewives, widows and the like back to health.
This particular career path (yes, it was a real one) seems to have inspired hand cramps and carpal tunnel in the men who practiced it. Wary of wearing out his digits, Granville turns to his dandified inventor friend (the always welcome Rupert Everett from My Best Friend’s Wedding) to come up with an electromechanical device that can produce the same “paroxysms” in patients. (At the time, it was believed women were incapable of either orgasm or sexual pleasure.) The result of this collaboration is the world’s first electric vibrator—a creation that has obviously far outlived its questionable medicinal roots.
While working for Dr. Dalrymple (and inadvertently figuring out more efficient ways to get women off) Granville meets a cross-section of English femininity—embodied nowhere more clearly than in the Dalrymple home itself. Dr. Dalrymple’s youngest daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, Brideshead Revisited) is a proper English rose: quiet, solicitous, chaste. Charlotte Dalrymple (American Maggie Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, is a wild child. Volunteering at poor houses, ranting about women’s suffrage and otherwise acting like a liberated feminist, Charlotte is the black sheep of the Dalrymple family.
Though it dabbles in naughty humor, Hysteria is mostly a romantic comedy. As such, it isn’t to hard to figure out what our hero’s dilemma will be: charmingly chaste Emily or firebrand feminist Charlotte? It also isn’t hard to figure out what the eventual choice will be. There are various misunderstandings, a handful of kerfuffles and a bit of folderal along the way—but there’s little mystery where this is all headed.
Despite its seemingly touchy subject matter, Hysteria is hardly a titillating film. Its discretion is, in fact, quintessentially British—never exceeding the nudge-nudge, wink-wink stage. There are some serious subjects scattered about the storyline. (This is, after all, a history of rampant medical malpractice and misunderstanding.) But nobody here is interested in getting very serious. There are a few prescient speeches at the climax. But when all is said and done, Hysteria is a cheeky little lark and nothing more. It’s doubtful that anything beyond the most basic facts here are historically accurate. (Apparently, in an 1883 book, Granville said he had never even used his famed device on a patient.) Those searching for an in-depth history of human sexuality will have to search elsewhere. Those looking for a snicker, some romance, a lot of Victorian clothing and a few good vibrations will emerge smiling and partially satisfied.