Review By: Gordon K. Smith
In the 19th century, and well into the 20th, “hysteria” was recognized as an actual medical condition used to describe a wide range of female complaints, from fatigue, to boredom, irrationality, neurosis, and a whole range of sexual disorders. The officially prescribed treatment for this malady was a visit to the local doctor of “women’s medicine”, who would apply a “pelvic massage” until milady experienced a “paroxysm” (just what you think it is). This particular form of treatment actually became quite popular with upper class ladies who could afford it, and they were more than happy to return. It was less popular with the practitioners, who, at least in their official records, looked upon it as an effective but routine treatment, and quite taxing on the digital dexterity they needed for their other medical duties. A mechanical substitute was needed.
That setup would easily fill a typical SNL skit, but the festival hit HYSTERIA runs 100 minutes (unlike typical SNL skits which only seem to run 100 minutes). So, the treatment becomes the centerpiece of a period love-triangle comedy set in 1880 London (think HOWARDS END with multiple orgasms). As the camera and the home video industry have taught us, sex and technology have always gone hand in, uh, hand – the screenplay by Texans Steven and Jonah Lisa Dyer, adds feminism to that equation. It’s a fiction based on a real person, British doctor Mortimer Granville, who patented the first electric vibrator around that time. In HYSTERIA he’s played by Hugh Dancy (who sometimes resembles the young Mel Gibson). Granville’s a young doctor seeking his first situation, and finds it as an apprentice to Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, great as always), a veteran of pelvic massage (to treat “disorders of the uterus”). The good doctor has more patients than he can handle, so to speak, and trains Mortimer in the fine art (this is, of course, played out in hilarious deadpan).
Dalrymple has two daughters, who are, predictably, polar opposites – demure Emily (Felicity Jones, a head bump reader) and rebellious suffragette/social reformer Charlotte (a breakout role for Maggie Gyllenhaal, doing a decent Brit accent, although you can never quite believe that she and Felicity are sisters). Both take an interest in Mortimer, Charlotte more aggressively – she ostensibly wants him to serve at her West End center for poor women.
Although proper and properly bored, London ladies line up for Dr. Granville, he develops carpal tunnel syndrome from this nonstop manipulation (as did many such doctors of the time) and seeks an alternate method of treatment. Lucky for him (and the service of script flow) his roommate is an inventor of electrical gadgets (spot-on Rupert Everett, who has an early telephone). What he designs as an electric feather duster is re-engineered for a whole new purpose by Mortimer, giving birth to what would become one of the first standard household electric appliances. Even Queen Victoria, in the very funny epilog, takes a keen interest.
It doesn’t take much to see where HYSTERIA is going early on, but it’s pleasantly played, the period décor is very attractive, and director Tanya Wexler, for the most part, finds the right tone between romantic comedy, farce and female-empowerment allegory. Gyllenhaal is very watchable and looks great in, and out, of period costumes. And despite the subject, it’s never exploitative – this is one R-rated movie about sex toys that you could take your mum to. Oh, if you’re one of those who stampedes the exit as soon as credits start rolling, don’t this time – you’ll get treated to a slideshow of actual, historical “electric massagers”, including Granville’s and the one from the 1913 Sears & Roebuck catalog.