The birth of the vibrator doesn’t seem like a tale that demands telling until you realize that the most prolific sex toy of all time started during one of the most sexually repressive cultures, Victorian England. In 1880, the plague of the era was a malady known as “hysteria.” Half the women in London seemed to suffer from this condition where, as the doctors of the times believed, a woman’s uterus had become unaligned and needed to be properly readjusted; the readjustment produced a “paroxysm” of relief. To treat hysteria, these trained professionals would oil their hands, insert them inside a woman’s vaginal canal, and apply alternating pressure. They were getting these women off. Hysteria presents a charming document about the invention of the vibrator, a miracle of modern science. However, I wish the movie had taken a more mature approach to the material.
The alignment process was an arduous one, and Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) needs a new set of hands. Enter Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a crusading young doctor who butts heads with the medical establishment over things like washing hands and germs. Under Dr. Dalrymple’s tutelage, the practice is never busier, relieving upper class women of hysteria. It’s going so well that Dr. Dalrymple would like to eventually pass the practice on to his young protégé, as well as his proper young daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Then there’s the doctor’s other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who clashes with authority, is outspoken about women’s suffrage, is critical of the limited role women play in society, and devotes her time to a lower-class shelter to provide refuge and education to those in need. She represents a brand-new kind of woman in time, and Mortimer cannot get a handle on her. Mort is suffering some pretty serious hand cramps from his line of work when he gets a splendid idea from his childhood friend and amateur inventor, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett). It seems with a quick fix, the electric feather duster may have other more scandalous uses.
Hysteria is short of being hysterical but it’s certainly charming and provides an interesting history lesson with a light touch. The very nature of women’s hysteria is a fascinating moment in history where men were bending over backwards to find medical assessments for what is, in essence, horniness. The fact that these women’s doctors were getting carpal tunnel from all the manually stimulation of their clients has got to be one of the strangest workplace hazards. In certain regards, the invention of the vibrator has saved lives, or at least the hands of medial practitioners. It’s probably also made a whole lot of women a whole lot happier. Feminine sexuality was just an obtuse concept to the well-educated men in charge. One character says, with absolute certainty, that women cannot achieve sexual pleasure unless through insertion. As another fun historical note of male ignorance when it comes to female anatomy, when Deep Throat was being banned in the U.S., the federal judge who deemed it obscene cited, in his writing, that one of the many dangers of the provocative flesh film was that it mistakenly exposed women to the idea of an orgasm without insertion. This is almost 100 years later and yet men in high places of power are still carrying on complete ignorance of something they very literally know very little about. In that regard, Hysteria is jolly fun as we watch women get their jollies. There’s always something fun about watching uptight characters cut loose, especially when they find pleasure that has been denied them.
Having a talented cast is also a benefit when you’re working in comedy. Dancy (Adam) plays our straight man with fine properness. He has a few moments where he gets to delightfully squirm thanks to bold women and bold topics. He’s got some solid chemistry with Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart), who is the feisty spitfire we expect in this sort of movie. Gyllenhaal is charming without being obnoxious, and her English accent is impeccable. Pryce (G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) and Jones (Like Crazy) are funny in their understated, stuffy British formal way, while Everett (Stardust) provides a great comedic jolt as the self-possessed, blithe technophile, ready at a moment’s notice for a good wisecrack. Sheridan Smith (How to Stop Being a Loser) also deserves special mention as a maid who was formerly employed as a prostitute. Her randiness is a nice counterpoint to all that Victorian repression and she pushes the movie further into sex farce.
While amusing, I wish the filmmakers would have taken a, dare I say it, more mature approach to a very interesting subject of history. The structure and very aim of the movie is that of a typical romantic comedy, which is a shame given the atypical subject matter. It’s pretty much a romantic comedy transplanted to merry old England. Much of the humor of the movie is divided into two camps: 1) watching the uptight Victorian-era Brits cut loose with decorum, or, 2) self-aware humor about the ignorance of the age. The first is always fun since we’re watching people sneak their true feelings through the wall of social repression. Director Tanya Wexler makes sue of a lot of sight gags and heartily enjoys cutaway reaction shots of ladies going orgasmic. It’s enjoyable but the fact that Wexler has to keep going back to the reaction shots for jokes, it loses its effect. Then there’s the self-aware humor built entirely upon dramatic irony, where the writers tweak the knowledge of a bygone era with all of our clever foresight: “Oh those stupid Victorians, not believing in things like germs and female orgasms.” After a while, the self-aware humor becomes tiresome. We get it; these silly Brits did not understand female health and proceeded to rule in their ignorance. I wish the movie left behind the easy jokes for some stronger social commentary. To this very day, we have men legislating women’s bodies and their reproductive rights (see: Oklahoma saying life begins weeks before conception, or Virginia demands medically-unnecessary vaginal probes for no other purpose than to shame women, and so so much more…). Ignorance knows no end, and one imagines the rom-com that makes fun of our current social mores and understanding.
It’s during the last act where Hysteria really starts to come apart at the seams. Beforehand, it’s been a fairly light comedy with some punctuations of commentary from Charlotte and her idealistic desire for equality. But then, and spoilers will follow, the movie suddenly transforms into a courtroom drama with Charlotte on trial. Her very mental health is on trial and if she’s found to be a hopeless case of incurable hysteria, then she’ll be shipped to a sanitarium and have her uterus forcibly removed. Wow. That is some heavy stuff for a movie that spent an hour making sex jokes. The courtroom setting leads to some pretty transparent speechifying; any subtlety goes out the window and we listen to messages about women’s suffrage, equality, and empathy. This conclusion feels like it was ripped from another movie. It’s tonally jarring. Then, after our lead takes his moral stand and confesses to his belief that there is no such thing as hysteria, that women are just stuck in sexually unfulfilling relationships in a sexually repressed age, everyone goes home to think about life. Then, thirty days later when Charlotte gets out of prison, she’s met by Mortimer where he, I kid you not, proposes to her on the spot. For a movie about breaking misconceptions about women, tying things up with a marriage proposal seems almost hypocritical. It also marks a pretty big leap in the burgeoning romantic relationship between Charlotte and Mort. It seems rushed and a strange way to end a movie about female empowerment. The rom-com elements have won out over any higher messages.
Hysteria starts strong but goes limp. Hysteria runs out of juice. Hysteria is a pleasant experience but doesn’t deliver a proper climax. Hysteria is not the feel-good movie of the year. The very nature of the movie lends itself to all sorts of innuenduous critical blurbs. It’s a rom-com transplanted to Victorian England and I wish that it tried a little harder with the material rather than settling for easy jokes relying upon the ignorance of the age. The cast is superb and the movie is certainly fun, but it falls apart in the end when the messages overtake the narrative. So what is the best Hysteria blurb? I’ve had better.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Posted on June 17, 2012, in 2012 Movies and tagged felicity jones, hugh dancy, indie, jonathan pryce, maggie gyllenhaal, period, romance, sex comedy, strong heroine. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.