"Hysteria" is an exuberantly charming romantic comedy, yes, but it's also a surprisingly compelling depiction of a world in transition, when tradition was being challenged by progressive behaviors and technologies. The time is the 1880s. The place is Victorian England. Electrical devices were barely starting to make their way into the lives of everyday people. In the field of medicine, germs were still widely regarded as theoretical, and in London alone, nearly a quarter of the female population was diagnosed with hysteria, a catchall diagnosis conjured up by male scientists describing a vast and arbitrary list of mental disorders. If a woman was unhappy, restless, disobedient, hostile, aggressive, too interested or not interested enough in sex, unable to sleep, or impertinent enough to desire an education, fair pay, and the right to decide for themselves the course of their lives, their uteruses were often to blame.
Apart from the occasional court-mandated hysterectomy, the treatment history of hysterical symptoms can basically be boiled down to various methods of masturbation. Techniques such as pelvic massage, digital manipulation, horseback riding, and even hydrotherapy were all applied to a woman's nether regions, as it was believed that they could provide a release for a hysterical patient's nervous system and put her reproductive organs back in working order. By the nineteenth century, it was common medical practice to provide vaginal massages to the point of "paroxysm," which today we would call orgasm. At that time, doctors did not realize they were performing an erotic sexual function that was in fact highly pleasurable. Around 1880, a well-respected English doctor named Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, initially for muscle aches but soon commandeered as a quicker, less manually exhausting treatment for hysteria.
In the film, Granville is fictionalized as Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a handsome young doctor who, because of his radical belief in the existence of germs and the sanitary practice of hand-washing, is having a very hard time establishing his career. After a string of failed interviews with doctors who still practice with leeches and hacksaws, he lands a secure job as an assistant to the renowned Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in women's medicine and runs a private clinic out of his home. Granville is taught all the proved massage techniques, which are then used on Dalrymple's regular and bountiful roster of affluent patients, including an elderly woman who, despite having lost her husband some years earlier, is still afflicted with "urges."
As this is being established, Granville meets one of Dalrymple's daughters, the demure Emily (Felicity Jones), who's not only lovely but also a skilled pianist and well versed in the science of phrenology. In Dalrymple's eyes, Granville would make a fine suitor for his daughter, and indeed, the two begin a cordial, if restrained, courtship. But then Granville is introduced to her older sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal); outspoken and confrontational, she's a socialist and suffragette who runs a settlement house for poor women and children in London's East End. Needless to say, her father disapproves of her progressive views and association with the lower class. Likewise, she disapproves of her father's medical practice, which profits from the treatment of women with a nonexistent mental disorder.
In a connected subplot, Granville's medical duties soon result in debilitating hand cramps. Here enters his wealthy and eccentric best friend, the deliciously witty Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who passionately tinkers with newfangled electric devices, including a telephone. Quite by accident, Granville discovers that the vibrations produced by Smythe's electric-powered feather duster do wonders for his smarting right hand. Putting two and two together, he and Smythe quickly fashion the world's first vibrating personal massager. They convince Dalrymple to try it on his patients, and of course, it's a resounding success. Granville's stature as Dalrymple's heir and Emily's fiancé will eventually be challenged by Charlotte, whose vexing nature reawakens his passion for progressive medicine.
While the plot is certainly conventional as far as romantic comedies are concerned, and although the ending is perhaps too tidy for its own good, I cannot sit here and deny that "Hysteria" had me smiling from the very first frame to the very last. Here is a bright, funny, hopelessly endearing film that benefits greatly from the sheer likability of its actors. That its story is just as blush-inducing today as it would have been in Victorian times only adds to its charm. We live in a day and age when frank discussions about sexuality are still by and large considered taboo, which is a shame because sex is an inescapable part of who we are. On a similar note, the film is also surprisingly timely, audacious in its assertion that we are all deserving of fair treatment, a quality education, and access to medical care. That many have stigmatized these ideals under the label of socialism reinforces the notion that we've come far but still have a long way to go.
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)
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