One might hope that a movie about the vibrator, a minor 19th-century invention, would resemble the offerings of the device itself: bit of a tickle, interesting sensations, growing pleasure, perhaps even paroxysms of delight. Unfortunately, Hysteria is much closer in its effects to a more significant and much larger 19th-century invention. Like the locomotive, this costume drama proceeds noisily and methodically toward a destination that is agreed upon from the outset. Good orgasms and good movies generally offer surprises; good trains do not.
Hysteria follows on the heels of In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play), the 2009 Broadway hit about Victorian women who used the vibrator, but instead the movie focuses on a highly fictionalized account of the actual invention of the device.
Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a modern young doctor who keeps losing jobs because he won’t tolerate pre-modern hospital conditions. (Although supposedly set in 1880, Hysteria opens in a London ward unacquainted with the improvements in care initiated by Florence Nightingale 25 years earlier.) Thank goodness the repeatedly unemployed Granville can always fall back on the generosity of his friend, the wealthy inventor Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), who is conducting various experiments with electricity.
When Granville signs on with a society doctor treating women suffering from that Victorian complaint known as hysteria, he walks in to what seems like a perfect set-up. Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) treats his patients by administering so-called pelvic stimulation: Believing women can only feel sexual pleasure when penetrated by the male member, he can maintain that the massage he offers is a clinical treatment.
Having relied on an image of 19th-century medicine’s complete backwardness to set the initial scene, director Tanya Wexler then merely derides the doctor’s approach to his female patients. We are treated to repeated scenes of panting, squealing and moaning women while the ludicrously self-deluded doctor and his new assistant do their work behind the velvet curtains of the examination table. Obviously a movie about the invention of the vibrator is going to have to approach the topic with humour, but ridiculing your main characters’ psychology does not build dramatic tension.
With a handsome young doctor offering the treatments, the practice flourishes. Granville dutifully begins romancing the doctor’s docile daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and Dalrymple considers taking him as both partner and son-in-law. Everything is perfect, except for two problems: One is that Granville is starting to get a repetitive strain injury from the work and the other is that Emily has a mouthy suffragette for a sister. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End and, as the film’s convenient spokesperson for feminism, thinks hysteria is simply the condition of bored women whose husbands don’t know how to make love to them.
The American actress does a good version of the kind of young and earnest British enthusiasm once so charmingly delivered by Emma Thompson, and produces one of the few energetic performances here; on the other hand, it can be difficult to tell whether Dancy’s Granville is embarrassed by the medicine he is being called on to practice or whether the actor himself is embarrassed by the material he is being called on to play.
Our final destination, meanwhile, is never in doubt: First, we will pull into Solution where St. John-Smythe’s electricity will be applied to Granville’s crippling labour, and then we will stop at Love where Granville will fall for the correct sister. And so we do, as Hysteria’s mighty locomotive chugs forward from the oh-so-benighted past to the clearly enlightened future. The results are guaranteed, but don’t expect much pleasure along the way.
- Directed by Tanya Wexler
- Written by Stephen Dyer, Jonah Lisa Dyer and Howard Gensler
- Starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal
- Classification: 14A
- 1 star