Hysteria (dir. Tanya Wexler): a light-hearted giggle that riffs on women’s oppression and choosing between principle and respectability

Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” (2011)

A romantic comedy very loosely based on historical fact, “Hysteria” purports to tell how Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the world’s first vibrator in 1880. For much of history up until the early 20th century, physicians (mainly male) had been treating various “conditions” in their female patients – conditions that might now be recognised as sympomatic of frustration both sexual and non-sexual, anxiety, depression, menstrual problems or even dissatisfaction with a limited, mostly home-bound role in society, but which were grouped into a catch-all ailment known as female hysteria (from which the film takes its name) – by masturbating them until the women experienced orgasm. The practice was lucrative for doctors since the women usually ended up being repeat patients (ahem!) but clitoral and vaginal massage was taxing for the doctor as the technique was difficult to master and appointments with patients could take hours. Hence there was a need for massage devices that could shorten the time required to treat patients from hours to minutes and during the 19th century, various treatments and devices including hydrotherapy and vibrators operated mechanically or by clockwork were invented. Thanks once again to Wikipedia for the information!

As for the film, the plot is a love triangle of Shakespearean “The Taming of the Shrew”  or Austenesque “Pride and Prejudice” inspiration: a young idealistic bachelor doctor (Hugh Dancy)  in need of a proper medical profession after being sacked from yet another hospital job because his belief that germs cause illness upsets the medical establishment applies for the role of assistant to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice is doing a roaring trade among the desperate housewives of the middle class. Dr Dalrymple specialises in relieving mild forms of hysteria among these ladies. Darcy’s doctor Granville is a hit with Dalrymple’s patients too but quickly develops repetitive strain injury which causes a problem for him in the surgery. At the same time he is pressured by Dalrymple to become his partner, eventually to take over the practice, and marry his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) but older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist and prototype suffragette who runs a school and community centre for the poor in London, catches his eye and eventually his heart.

After losing his job because of his injury and sympathy towards Charlotte, Granville together with foster brother Edmund St John Smythe (Rupert Everett), a tech-buff and dissolute layabout, invent what they call a portable electric massager which they test on Dalyrymple’s maid Fannie and some of Dalrymple’s patients. The invention proves a hit and make Granville and St John Smythe rich. Meanwhile Dalrymple learns of Charlotte’s desperate plea to a wealthy couple for money and tries to foil her plan; this dastardly bastardry leads to a shakedown of one of Charlotte’s friends who then seeks her help by gatecrashing Granville and Emily’s engagement party. In the chaos that follows, Charlotte lands a right jab on the constable’s cheek which puts her in jail. She faces a sentence of incarceration in a mental asylum with a forced hysterectomy and Granville finds himself called upon as an expert witness with Charlotte’s life, health and future in his hands.

There’s a message about how women were patronised as infantile by the medical profession and how the problems they suffered from having limited choice and control over their lives and careers were swept into the medical basket to be treated as a physical and mental abnormality. Women like Charlotte who behaved outside the decreed societal stereotype appropriate for their class could be deemed mentally ill or defective and faced imprisonment and drastic surgery that could affect their health permanently and cut short their life span and quality. The romantic comedy format bravely tackles this issue of women’s oppression in a light-hearted though rather superficial  and forced way. The actors play fairly stock characters: Dancy is awkward as Granville and just manages to make the character credible but the others, Gyllenhaal and Everett in particular, acquit themselves. Gyllenhaal  plays a feisty and intelligent socialist feminist and Everett does his foppish gay aristocrat routine. Jones has a demure and obedient Victorian young lady stereotype to work with and makes the best of what she can with the limited role.

The direction is often superb with some wonderful scene set pieces – Pryce, Dancy and Everett donning goggles, as if about to travel to the moon in a home-made rocket, while preparing to use the massager on a portly matron are a hoot – and the plot cleverly juggles two narrative strands into one smooth and giddily paced whole. The script is so light that if one were to release it, it would float to the ceiling (with apologies to Kate Jackson of the old Charlie’s Angels series) and the ending is rather too tidy and predictable. Light farce follows in a finale consisting of a montage of silent scenes in which the massager’s fame spreads far and wide across the green and sceptred isles.

“Hysteria” turns out to be a fun giggle but no more. There’s a danger that in a film of its type, serious issues are reduced to bawdy comedy; “Hysteria” just manages to stay out of that Peeping-Tom / Carry-On zone by deftly presenting its protagonist with a moral dilemma of either being true to his principles or opting for false respectability.

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