A film review by Craig J. Koban July 1, 2012
2012, R, 95 mins.
2012, R, 95 mins.
Mortimer: Hugh Dancy /
Charlotte: Maggie Gyllenhaal /
Dr. Dalrymple: Jonathan Pryce /
Emily: Felicity Jones /
Edmund: Rupert Everett
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.
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 problem.
What 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.