Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tanya Wexler
Stars: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Malcolm Rennie, Ashley Jensen.
Hysteria is a very funny and enjoyable period comedy from director Tanya Wexler (Finding North, etc). Set in London in 1880, the film deals with the (almost) accidental invention of the vibrator, which has become the biggest selling sex toy in history. Over the end credits we get illustrations of the various incarnations of the device that have been developed over the years.
The story is loosely based on fact, although the screenwriters seem to have taken enormous liberties. Hysteria is the debut feature screenplay from the husband and wife team of Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, and is based on an article written by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Howard Gensler. The film also shares some surface similarities with Sarah Ruhl’s play In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, which was staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011.
Newly graduated and idealistic young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) finds it hard to gain work because his modern views on sanitation and medicine upset the old fashioned medical professionals whose ideas are still stuck in the past. Granville eventually fins a job as an assistant in the clinic of Dr Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple specialises in treating women who suffer from hysteria, a disabling condition suffered by half the women in the city. Hysteria was a convenient diagnosis for feelings of sexual frustration, and it was recognised up until the 1950s. Dalrymple’s treatment of massaging a woman’s private parts, triggering a paroxysm, was effective in relieving the symptoms.
Granville also finds himself caught between Dalrymple’s two daughters, the delicate and obedient Emily (Felicity Jones) and the outspoke, rebellious suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who runs a charitable clinic and soup kitchen in the impoverished area of the city, much to her father’s disgust.
But when Granville develops an early form of RSI from treating the patients, he is dismissed from the clinic. His eccentric friend Edmund St John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), a wealthy dilettante inventor, provides the solution with his electric massage treatment, an invention that eventually leads to the development of the vibrator.
Although much of the film does indeed deal with the creation of the iconic vibrator, Hysteria is also something of a formulaic romantic comedy. Although Mortimer officially becomes engaged to the quiet Emily, it is obvious that the sparks fly between himself and the forthright Charlotte, and there are no surprises for guessing where it all ends.
Given the subject matter – masturbation as a treatment for women’s medical ailments – the material is handled delicately and discreetly enough, especially since the film is set against the backdrop of the repressive patriarchal society of Victorian era England. Director Wexler maintains a nice pace throughout this sparkling and light comedy. The film also manages to touch on more serious themes, including the burgeoning growth of the suffragette movement and women’s rights.
The performances of the cast are all solid and enthusiastic. Dancy brings charm to his performance. Gyllenhaal is strong and lively, and manages a convincing British accent, although she brings a rather contemporary attitude, fierce intelligence and spark to her performance. And Everett is clearly enjoying himself here. He gets the best lines, and brings a wonderfully irreverent touch to his performance. The recreation of late 19th century London is superb, and the solid contributions from Sophie Becher’s production design and Nic Ede’s costumes lend authenticity.