A film review by Craig J. Koban July 1, 2012


2012, R, 95 mins.


Mortimer: Hugh Dancy / Charlotte: Maggie Gyllenhaal / Dr. Dalrymple: Jonathan Pryce / Emily: Felicity Jones / Edmund: Rupert Everett

Directed by Tanya Wexler / Written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer

HYSTERIA is a new Victorian-era romantic dramedy that has a premise that will elicit many a sarcastic sneer.  It’s about the invention of the electronic vibrator (or, in the period vernacular, the “Jolly Molly”), an adult sex toy that the film’s end credits reveals is the most popular of its kind sold in recorded history (paging Captain Obvious).  

Yet, HYSTERIA has more up its sleeve than telling the tale of how doctors of the late 19th Century came up with such a portable appliance; the film also deals with the feminist movements of its era that battled unbridled sexism, not to mention how doctors thought they were treating a female disease that history has shown never existed by, ahem, massaging the female genitalia.  As to how doctors of this time arrived at such a treatment method remains an unintentionally hysterical mystery. 

Yet, hysteria was once a widely held and accepted medical condition that some doctors felt as many as 50 per cent of London women were ravaged by it.  Women considered to be suffering from such an aliment had symptoms so preposterously varied it’s a miracle that scientists of the period were able to deduce one single source of the problemWhat these so-called high-minded and serious doctors didn’t realize was that many of the women they treated were, more or less, just sexually unfulfilled on the home front.  Yet, medical practitioners sure believed in hysteria and certainly believed that female genital massage was the ultimate cure-all.  With the application of - as a doctor in the film describes - “good, consistent pressure” to such area any women could all but kiss their hysteria-symptoms good-bye.  

Unsurprisingly, the film highlights how women of 1880 Victorian England loved genital stimulation, regardless of whether they had hysteria or not, which made the practice of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, playing things absolutely straight considering where he has his hands half the time) so popular.  He brings his clients in, puts them in stirrups surrounded by a quaint velvety curtain, and then performs…well…you know…to the point where they achieve multiple “uterine paroxysms”, the latter word that, yes, rhymes with another word that’s much more commonly accepted now.  Business is a booming for Dalrymple, which requires him to seek a young and willing assistant, and considering what the assistant would be required to do, finding one would seem like the easiest task possible. 

Dalrymple does find one in the form of Dr. Mortimer Granville (the fine Hugh Dancy), a progressive minded doctor that believes in the existence of “germs”, which his colleagues consider pure poppycock.  Despite being – for his time – one of the forerunners of advanced, ahead-of-his-time scholars of medicine and disease, Granville needs work.  He joins Dalrymple’s practice and begins to learn the ropes of pleasuring…er…I mean curing women of hysteria, but just as the young doctor gets the hand of it...uh...make that hang of it all, he develops strained muscles in his hands and forearm.  We now know this to be carpal tunnel syndrome, but in Victorian England it was just a nasty side effect of making way, way, way too many women happy. 



Granville relays his concerns to his best friend, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (the consistently and unflappably amusing Rupert Everett), who tries to provide some solace to his friend’s woes.  The Lord is an inventor of high tech electrical gadgets, his latest being the electric feather duster, which looks like a power drill with, yup, a spinning duster on its end.  One day when Granville’s hand and forearm pain is unendurable, he thinks of ways to relieve it: he removes the duster portion of the gadget, revealing a small…uh…knob…and proceeds to massage his joints.  It feels fantastic to him, which leads to an immediate epiphany: why not use this same device on woman to cure hysteria?  It sure would allow him to free up his hands and relieve his throbbing aches.  The vibrator is born and it becomes a huge success.  

Yet, the young doctor with the ingenious invention has a few other issues he has to sort out: he was set up to essentially marry Dalrymple’s daughter (Felicity Jones), but just as that relationship is beginning Granville develops feelings for the other daughter, the strong willed, independent-minded, and radical feminist that is Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to see right through just about every man and, in particular, the sham that is hysteria and her father’s practice.  No extra points will be awarded to the viewer who can predict whom the doctor will decide to be with. 

HYSTERIA is as handsomely mounted of a period film as any recent one that I’ve seen (the costumes, sets, and overall look of 1880’s London are splendid), but the film is more about its sly performances, which, considering the premise, are admirably restrained and poised.  Dancy, playing the reality-based Granville who created the vibrator, brings a fidgety anxiousness and nervous comic energy to his role, which is balanced nicely by Everett’s impeccably and reliably droll turn as his colleague and friend who seems to have a perfect quip for any occasion.  Pryce finds a way to play even the silliest scenes with levelheaded and thankless seriousness.  The film, however, is Gyllenhaal’s to own and shine in, as she gives a power, authority, and immediate presence to her uber-liberated and empowered woman’s rights activist; she imbues an enthusiastic radiance and spirited sass to Charlotte at every turn. 

Not all of HYSTERIA works: there are times when it can’t really decide if it wants to focus exclusively on Granville’s immensely successful invention or its feminists themes or its romantic love triangle or its historical portrayal of then-advanced science that was positively wrongheaded.  I found myself caught up in the build-up of the innovation of the vibrator and the way doctors of the period completely and ignorantly misdiagnosed women’s maladies more than I was in the budding romance between Granville and Charlotte, which is pretty flat and perfunctorily handled.  There’s also a subplot involving Charlotte’s trouble with the law that culminates in one of those obligatory courtroom scenes with mechanical, audience-pleasing speeches and declarations that seems like they’re from a whole other movie altogether. 

HYSTERIA is not a masterful or great period romance or history film, but it’s always eminently lightweight, frequently clever, and modestly enjoyable for the most part, thanks largely to its amiable and inviting performances and witty script.  Considering that the film involves many a scene of doctors stimulating women, HYSTERIA never devolves into becoming a tawdry and filthy-minded film (it’s not gratuitous or sexually graphic and contains no nudity or foul language, which makes its R-rating kind of misleading).   And the story behind the concoction of the most popular adult toy ever is kind of compelling.  Did you know that Granville’s first patent for the vibrator was filed when the device was called “Granville’s Hammer”?  Thank God the name of changed.  As one patient tells the doctor in the film at one point, “I’d think of a name for that would be quick and simple, so that a girl knows what to ask for.”  True dat.

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