Directed by: Tanya Wexler.
Written by: Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer & Howard Gensler.
Starring: Hugh Dancy (Mortimer Granville), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Charlotte Dalrymple), Jonathan Pryce (Dr. Robert Dalrymple), Felicity Jones (Emily Dalrymple), Rupert Everett (Edmund St. John-Smythe), Ashley Jensen (Fannie), Sheridan Smith (Molly), Gemma Jones (Lady St. John-Smythe), Malcolm Rennie (Lord St. John-Smythe), Kim Criswell (Mrs. Castellari), Georgie Glen (Mrs. Parsons).
How is it that a movie about the invention of the vibrator has been turned into a classy, understated, British costume comedy? I’m not exactly sure how director Tanya Wexler pulled off that feat, but she does, and if no other reason deserves some credit for that. This is a movie that could have easily gone off the rails, yet never does. Yes, it is fairly predictable, and some of the dialogue goes crosses the line into lecturing, but overall, Hysteria is an enjoyable little film.
The film stars Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville, who has just been fired from another job for questioning his boss’ decision not to change a patient’s bandages, because his boss does not agree with Granville that germs exist. Such is the life for Granville in Victorian England, where he is reading the latest medical journals, and his elders are still using leeches. Desperate for a job, he eventually agrees to become the associate of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in treating female hysteria. Apparently this is caused by an overactive uterus, and can lead to all sorts of horrible symptoms, that if serious enough can only be treated by removing the uterus entirely. But Dalrymple treats mild cases with massage the genital area that produces “paroxysmal convulsions” or in today’s language, orgasms. The scene where Pryce shows Dancy just how he does this (“I start with a little musk oil…”) is just about the funniest I have seen this year.
Soon Granville is as accomplished as Dalrymple at this practice, and is on the fast track to becoming a partner – and may just end up marrying Dalrymple’s dutiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) – even though he finds himself increasingly drawn to the more rebellious daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who uses her family’s money to help the poor in London – that most people of her class thinks is distasteful. But all this massaging is starting to hurt Granville’s wrist – but his friend has a few electric feather duster that produces a pleasant vibration – and a genius idea is born.
Hysteria does not really attempt to be a really sexy, erotic movie that you might expect to be given its subject matter. The movie does have a lot to say about the state of female medicine back in Victoria Times – where hysteria was used to diagnose pretty much anything wrong with a woman, and where no one seemed to realize that females could actually experience sexual pleasure – or at least they would never say so out loud. The men may be too dull or dimwitted to figure out why they have such a large clientele – but the women know, they just let the men continue to think what they want. In some ways, things don’t really change.
The central relationship in the movie is between Granville and Charlotte – which follows the standard romantic comedy formula pretty much to the letter. When he first meets Charlotte, Granville thinks her insane, and is much more attracted to the more docile Emily. But the more interactions they have, the more Granville is drawn to her. We know what will happen, and it does – but at the very least it is pleasant. Dancy and Gyllenhaal play their roles well – especially Gyllenhaal, which is a relief, because too much of her dialogue is the type of feminist speeches that always seem out to place to me in movies like this – but Gyllenhaal sells it nicely.
Besides, it is the supporting characters who steal the movie. Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as Dalrymple, who has no idea what he is doing, but it great at just the same. Even better is Rupert Everett, who is quite clearly gay even if the movie never explicitly states this (although Granville does lovingly call him a “full time sexual deviant”, which was the euphemism of the time). He is a rich, drunken playboy – and he is quite clearly having a blast. Everett, who looked like he was on the verge of stardom back in the late 1990s, has rarely been given a role that exploits his talents this well – and he makes the most of it. Then, of course, there is the series of women who are Dalrymple and Granville’s patients – who discreetly have their orgasms under a tasteful red tent – and each and every one of them are a treat.
Hysteria may be a one joke movie – but it’s a good joke, well told. It certainly is not a great movie – but it is great fun, and given its subject matter, that’s probably about all we could hope for.