Hysteria (Tanya Wexler, 2011)
By Carolyn Lake.
While comedy is an inevitable feature of a film loosely based on the invention of the electronic vibrator, Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria comes off as surprisingly light despite its fascinating historical subject matter. Hugh Dancy stars as Mortimer Granville, a progressive doctor living in Victorian London during the 1880s where he finds himself in need of work after being fired from countless medical positions where his belief in germ theory, sterilisation and, basically, science, made him an adversary to many doctors of the day. Desperate, Mortimer takes a position at the practice of Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), an exclusive establishment that treats middle and upper class women for “hysteria” – a catch-all diagnosis for ailments that women were deemed to have – by administering “pelvic massages” to produce a “paroxysm”. There he meets Dr Dalrymple’s daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Described by her father as the ‘angel in the house’, Emily typifies the Victorian feminine ideal. Mortimer also unwittingly meets Dr Dalrymple’s other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she storms out of the building in disagreement with her father over women’s roles in society. Oblivious to the sexual component of his work, Mortimer becomes a hit with the practice’s patients and is in line to become both partner to the business and to Emily when he injures his hand from day-long massaging. Mortimer is discussing his predicament with long-time friend and benefactor Edmund St. John-Smythe (played wonderfully by Rupert Everett) when he discovers that Edmund’s latest invention – an electric feather duster – produces a vibrating sensation that eases the pain in his hands. After some modifications and experimentation, the two men produce a machine that can elicit “paroxysms” in women quickly and without laborious manual labour and, voila, the vibrator is born. Meanwhile Charlotte has abandoned her privileged upbringing to run a settlement house for women and children in the East End while also gallivanting about London on her bicycle and campaigning for women’s suffrage. From Charlotte’s socialist-feminist crusades she ends up arrested and when it is suggested that she is suffering hysteria and should be detained in a sanatorium, Mortimer is called to testify as an expert. Here Mortimer finallyrealises that women can be dissatisfied with their lives without being mentally ill, testifies to that fact, finds himself now without job or Emily but as luck would have it, rich after inventing the personal vibrator and actually in love with Charlotte and not Emily after all.
While the Victorian period was not known for its openness towards women’s sexuality (indeed, most thought it didn’t exist), it’s difficult to believe that Granville, who begins the film as distinctly modern and progressive, is unable to see how ridiculous his new job is until the closing scenes. Indeed, much of the film takes pains to point out (often much to our amusement, granted) the contrasts rather than the continuities between the late nineteenth century and now – we laugh as the men largely remain defiantly ignorant in the face of evidence and reason, as they continue administering leeches, studying phrenology and believing women derive zero pleasure from sexual activity. The only male character who isn’t painfully naïve is Everett’s delightful Edmund, an eccentric and queer figure who engages with new technologies as a hobby. Similarly unbelievable is the progressive zeal of Charlotte, whose speeches and witty retorts sound much more like something from the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal is a pleasure to watch despite the exaggerated modernity of her character, occupying a role of social transgressor and deliberate misfit with ease.
Kudos also needs to go to Sophie Becher, the film’s production designer, for the simply gorgeous reproduction of 1880s London. Hysteria is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging film. If anything too fast-paced (they fit a whole lot of plot into a little over 90 minutes), a little deeper investigation of the film’s subject matter would have been nice but even if it doesn’t work as a biting social commentary on history it makes for an excellent romantic comedy.
Carolyn Lake is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Janine Gericke’s review of Hysteria here.