They say that original movies don’t get made anymore (lord know I’ve whined about it through tears and/or booze-fueled rage many a time), but how about this concept: a film about the Victorian doctor and his drunken inventor pal who gave the world the gift of the vibrator. That’s right; it’s a costume drama about the birth of the world’s first sex toy. Is it the greatest film ever made? Absolutely not, but I certainly have to admit that I’ve never seen this movie before. The entertaining little project definitely wins points for the charm and novelty that makes up for the occasionally ho-hum storytelling. Simply put, if you’re only going to see one movie about vibrators this year, Hysteria should be at the top of your list.
The tale takes place at a particular highpoint of British stuffiness. Doctors across England noticed that women were suffering from an outbreak of “hysteria.” At all social classes woman seemed uptight and overwhelmed by an inexplicable hunger. Fortunately, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) had a cure. Using the finest imported oils, the good doctor found that these mysterious attacks could be momentarily quelled with a gently vigorous massage in the nether realms of their pelvic region. Of course, this procedure was never considered sexual because women of that era didn’t experience sexual pleasure (according to “research”). Enter a young doctor named Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who takes a job at Dalrymple’s practice after being booted out of nearly every other medical establishment in London for his radical beliefs in germs and following current medical research. All the ladies of the practice seem to really appreciate the handsome doctor’s massage, business starts booming, and Dalrymple contemplates not only giving over his practice to Granville, but also the hand of his youngest and most painfully obedient daughter Emily (Felicity Jones).
Life seems perfect for Granville, until he starts experiencing hand-cramps due to his workload. He also becomes somewhat confused about the exact nature of his medical services after spending time with Dalrymple’s rowdy, independent, suffragette daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who defies her father’s wishes by working for the poor and supporting women’s rights (seriously, where does she get off?). However, Granville also understandably doesn’t want to lose the only medical job available to him in London and tries to come up with a solution. Enlisting the help of a wealthy drunken friend (an absolutely hilarious Rupert Everett), they invent an electronic massager that seems to work even better than an elderly doctor’s shaking hands. Thus, the sex toy industry is born and thanks to a love affair with Charlotte, a push for women’s rights also sneaks in to make sure everyone leaves the theater happy.
Director Tanya Wexler’s film works primarily because it never revels in the titillating or controversy-bating elements of the story. Instead, she plays the film as a gentle comedy, mocking the confused thoughts and ideals of old-timey England without ever digging too deeply. There’s a much darker film to be made about the same subject with a harsher look at the rampant misogynist repression of the era, but this ain’t it and the sitcom version is probably far more enjoyable anyways. The performances are strong across the board from the impossibly dapper doctor leads to the string of sour/elated faces of British character actresses playing their clients. However, the show is definitely stolen by Gyllenhaal who takes a character essentially comprised of rants outlining the filmmaker’s thesis and turns her into an endlessly charismatic early feminist. Her part still gets a little preachy in a way that often sits awkwardly against the featherweight tone of the film that surrounds her, but Gyllenhaal dives into the role with such glee that she somehow makes it work.
It’s safe to say that Hysteria is far from a masterpiece. This is ultimately just comedy fluff with a socially conscious agenda snuck in ever so slightly. There isn’t much to the movie beneath the surface and given the often ridiculous subject matter, Wexler and her cast never really hit the delirious comedy heights they were clearly striving for. Instead, this falls into a very specific brand of British comedy that treats dirty material in an impossibly genteel manner, as if the mere mention of a vagina is enough to cause uncomfortable chuckles from the audience. It’s a dated brand of sex comedy, but one that feels entirely appropriate to the Victorian setting. Though the conservative sexual jokes would never work if the movie was set in the modern day, they feel appropriate in this deeply repressed era and nostalgically naughty. The film will never win awards or become a favorite of British comedy snobs. Yet if you find the idea intriguing, I find it hard to believe you’ll be too disappointed. Hysteria is a strange and unique little comedy for thoughtfully perverted viewers and costume comedy lovers everywhere.