Scandalous Review: Hysteria

Hysteria (2012)

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Written by: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler

Running Time: 95 minutes

Felicity Jones as Emily Dalrymple
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple
Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville
Rupert Everett as Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe
Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Robert Dalrymple
Ashley Jensen as Fanny
Anna Chancellor as Mrs. Bellamy
Gemma Jones as Lady St. John-Smythe
Malcolm Rennie as Lord St. John-Smythe
Tobias Menzies as Mr. Squyers
Sheridan Smith as Molly the Lolly
Kim Criswell as Mrs. Castellari

What it’s about: The film, set in the Victorian era, is about the invention of the vibrator. The film's title refers to the once common medical diagnosis of female hysteria. Dr. Mortimer Granville gets fired from yet another hospital after he questions the father old-fashioned medical techniques of his superior who doesn‘t believe in the existence of germs. Granville moves in with his friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, a rather eccentric chap who experiments with electricity and is madly in love with the new-fangled invention the telephone. After many fruitless interviews, Granville interviews with Dr. Robert Dalrymple who has built up a rather successful practice treating female hysteria. Darlrymple is desperate to hire another doctor since his practice continues to grow. It seems that ½ the women in London suffer from hysteria. After demonstrating the procedure, which basically involves masturbating the patient to orgasm, Dalrymple offers Granville a job.

Mortimer meets Dalrymple’s two daughters Emily and Charlotte. While Emily is the epitome of Victorian womanhood, demure, sweet, content to play the piano and practice phrenology, her sister Charlotte is a passionate, feisty, outspoken suffragette who works at a settlement house in the East End of London. Dr. Dalrymple insists that Charlotte suffers from hysteria since she expresses her opinions so freely. When Charlotte asks for money to pay for the coal the settlement house desperately needs, her father refuses.

At first Granville is a success, to such an extent that Darlrymple intimates that one day he might not only make Granville a partner but he might leave the practice to him, especially if he marries Emily who Granville has been courting. Unfortunately Granville soon has more patients than he can handle and begins to suffer from hand cramps which begin to affect his performance at work. Charlotte brings a woman from the settlement house late one night to her father’s practice for help with her broken ankle. Mortimer sets the ankle and he and Charlotte spar some more. Charlotte insists that Mortimer could make a real difference treating patients in the East End, rather that treating her father’s wealthy patients. She finds her father’s practice contemptuous. When Mortimer is unable to satisfy a patient, Dalrymple fires him.

At Lord Edmund’s, Mortimer discovers that his electric feather duster gives a great hand massager. It occurs to him that perhaps the massage function could take the place of the human in the treatment of female hysteria. Eureka! The vibrator is born.

My thoughts: Who knew a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator could be not just funny but also give the audience a bit of a little history lesson about how women were treated in the 19th century? I would have loved this film just because it features so many of my favorite British actors such as Jonathan Pryce, and Gemma Jones, not to mention the still very handsome Rupert Everett. The film treats a very serious subject, the treatment of female hysteria in the 19th century, with humor, but it doesn’t miss the chance to point out not just the absurdities of the treatment of female hysteria but also how much damage was done to perfectly normal women.

The film is factual to a certain extent, women were really give manual massages to relieve the systems of hysteria in the 19th century, some were even committed to asylums and given hysterectomies, and there really was a Mortimer Granville, actually his name was Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville (1833-1900) and while he did come up with a battery powered massager, he never intended it to be used on women. In fact, he was actually appalled that his invention was used for such a purpose. It’s ironic that masturbation in the 19th century was considered sinful, but yet doctors used it to treat hysteria.

However, in this film Granville is set up as the harbinger of modern medical techniques. Although since he such an advocate for cleanliness to get rid of germs, you would think that he would realize that hysteria was just a catch-all diagnosis, instead of really treating what ailed women in the 19th century. Even after inventing the vibrator, he still doesn’t realize that all he’s doing is just giving women the sexual satisfaction that they aren’t given at home. It’s up to Charlotte to say out loud what the audience already know, that women do have sexual feelings. Granville grows in the film from a man who while interested in modern medical techniques, is still somewhat trapped by the what was considered the traditional roles for men and women. At first, he has a hard time understanding what drives Charlotte to give up the world of an upper middle class young woman to help those less fortunate.

The film is ably directed by Tanya Wexler, and there is just enough seriousness to counterbalance the humorous scenes in Dr. Dalrymple’s office as well as the hilarious scene where Edmund and Mortimer test out their new invention on the housemaid Molly. All the actors are wonderful, but for me, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Charlotte made the film. First of all her English accent is impeccable, and she manages to make Charlotte’s need to get up on her soapbox at every opportunity, charming not annoying which it could have been with a lesser actress. Her scenes with Hugh Dancy just sparkle, as she constantly leaves him flustered, at the same time opening his eyes to the possibility to women being the equal of men.

I suspect that this film will have more resonance for the women in the audience than the men. And I’m sure there will be people who wish that the story had not been framed in a traditional romantic comedy format. For me, I thought it was like having a really good historical romance novel with serious themes on screen, the type of story that I wish I had written. I do however wish that there had been some mention of the fact that Charlotte eschewed corsets and bustles in her work at the settlement house compared to her sister who wore costumes that often made her look like a rather fetching meringue.  There is a part of me that wishes that instead of Granville, they used a fictional character as the inventor of the battery operated vibrator but one can't win them all.

Verdict:  For a peek behind the velvet curtains of Victorian sexuality, I highly recommend Hysteria. Be sure to stay for the credits or you'll miss some fun bits!


welcometo said…
Thanks for the great review - I've been dying to check out this movie since I saw a trailer for it last year. The history of hysteria and the vibrator has always fascinated me.

I'm a little disturbed though how much the use of the vibrator in its early years is seen as titilating. Many women, as you said in your review, were confined to asylums and even given forced hysterectomies. There were probably many women who were 'massaged' against their will, and basically experienced a form of rape. But this isn't funny or light or fun, so it's rarely mentioned, and the birth of the vibrator is often seen as a hilarious footnote in history. Of course I don't expect a rom-com to deal with that aspect, but it would be nice if some of the history books actually did.
ChristyEnglish said…
Fascinating! Thanks for this review Elizabeth

Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret