Feminism, medicine, science and technology collide in Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria,” a romantic comedy centered on the unlikely origins of the world’s most ubiquitous sex toy–the vibrator. Starring Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville, the forward-thinking Victorian-era physician who came up with the idea, this is a far cry from your average period piece.
In 1880s London, Mortimer, due to his subscription to progressive scientific ideas like germ theory, finds himself unemployable by the traditionalist physicians who dominate the health field. After many failed interviews, he finally finds a position as the assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose private practice specializes in treating “hysteria,” a catch-all diagnosis for women suffering anything from nymphomania to melancholia. While providing upper-middle-class women with manual massage treatments (read: hand jobs) is not quite the career that Mortimer imagined for himself, the pay is considerable, not to mention that he and Dr. Dalrymple’s youngest daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) seem to share a mutual attraction. But as the pair’s client list grows, Mortimer begins to suffer chronic hand cramps that threaten to derail his newfound success.
Meanwhile, he finds himself caught in the crossfire between Dr. Dalrymple and his feisty elder daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who believes that they ought to be helping the poor rather than widows and housewives whose husbands can’t perform in bed. When Mortimer pays a visit to his friend and electricity enthusiast Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), he is struck by sudden inspiration when playing with Edmund’s new toy, an electric feather duster, which vibrates in his hand and relieves the cramps. But whether the revolutionary device will be enough to redeem Mortimer in the eyes of the Dalrymple family remains to be seen.
While the acting is indicative of a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, beneath the playful exterior lies a genuine and sometimes-earnest sincerity. Darcy, playing Mortimer as a book-smart but socially awkward young doctor, creates an entertaining contrast with Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte, who is outspoken, opinionated and confident. The alternating chemistry and friction between the two drives the latent romantic plot while also providing a comical-yet-pointed commentary on woman’s expected place in Victorian society.
But perhaps one of the more compelling aspects of the setting is the paradox between the causes and symptoms of “hysteria” and the restrained nature of the time period. For an era notorious for its buttoned-up demeanor, the so-called medical condition demonstrated a surprisingly strong sense of sexuality, as women then (or at least Dalrymple’s patients in the film) knew what they were missing, even if they didn’t quite have the words that we do now to describe it. In addition to touching on the small victories of female empowerment in late-19th-century England, the film also pokes fun at attitudes toward technological advancement, making a nice parallel to the modern world.
Overall, “Hysteria” is a fun ride that may get a little silly at times, but then again, one would be hard-pressed to present the invention of the vibrator in a serious tone.