A tale of social and sexual female empowerment wrapped up in a bawdy, cheerful sex comedy, Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria practically vibrates with good cheer and good intentions. Set in Victorian England at a time when women’s dissatisfaction was often diagnosed as a medical problem -- the condition giving the film its title -- this message movie is being released right as 21st century America is in the throes of a presidential political season highlighted by talk of women’s rights.
Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, a young doctor whose belief in newfangled medical concepts like germs and sterilization make him a bit of an outcast at a time when bleedings are still considered cutting-edge procedures. After being fired from a hospital, he finds work at the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in treating women who suffer from “hysteria” -- a catchall diagnosis that encompasses just about every feeling that keeps women from being happy, docile, and/or relaxed. His cure involves him manually manipulating the genitals of his patients to orgasm, and it should go without saying that his practice is so successful that he needs to hire a new doctor.
Mortimer learns the proper technique, but soon his hand is in nearly constant pain because of how often he must perform this task. With his best friend, an independently wealthy inventor named Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), he creates an electric-powered handheld device that will accomplish the task with greater efficiency than his aching fingers. While this sounds like the stuff of soft-core silliness, the movie avoids any whiff of smut or exploitation while still allowing the audience to laugh at what’s happening -- the picture earns its R rating for bawdiness, not explicitness.
The film’s other major story line lets us know that the movie has deeper themes than simply the creation of the vibrator. Mortimer agrees to live with his new boss, which means regular contact with his daughters. The eldest, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a headstrong, defiantly independent social crusader who uses her father’s name and money in order to support numerous progressive programs in the community. She and Mortimer of course fall in love, although her commitment to the cause of women’s rights and his own insensitivity regarding this issue threaten to keep them apart.
First-time screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer do a fabulous job of connecting these two plotlines. They patiently connect the dots so we understand that the wealthy but bored women who bring Mortimer so much business are as troubled in their own -- albeit not as life-threatening -- way as the economically struggling mothers who depend on the social services Charlotte helps maintain. It’s a decidedly feminist film, but the message comes in such a charming and playful package that we can forgive a scene late in the movie in which the point is spelled out in plain and simple speeches during a court hearing to determine if Charlotte is insane.
Gyllenhaal thrives in the role of Charlotte, sinking her teeth into this educated, opinionated woman. Being the moral center of a movie with so strong a message can be a burden -- characters like this often fall flat -- but Gyllenhaal exudes a will of steel while her eyes twinkle with joy or, occasionally, burn with injustice. Pryce is dependably patrician as her frustrated but loving father, and Rupert Everett steals the whole movie with his flawless timing and unrivaled ability to make any lewd or suggestive line of dialogue snap with the wit and precision of Oscar Wilde. Though Dancy is a flawless straight man to every other character, he can’t quite overcome a blandness that robs the emotional climax of the story of the weight it deserves; you imagine Charlotte would have fallen for someone with a little more charisma.
Hysteria will certainly play well no matter what’s going on in the world, but it benefits greatly from being released in the heart of this election cycle, when women’s rights are being debated as publically as they have ever been in the last 30 years. Seen in this backdrop, Hysteria’s deeper motives connect with greater force than they otherwise would have. However, regardless of the social context in which anyone will someday view the movie, the pictorial history of “self-massagers” presented over the closing credits drives home the point that, no matter how the political winds may be blowing, the drive to fulfill basic pleasures is impossible to fully suppress. That message of acceptance and tolerance is timeless. leave a comment --Perry Seibert