London, 1880. The telephone is cutting-edge technology. Bleeding by leeches remains a common medical treatment. And nearly a quarter of the female population has, at one time or another, been diagnosed with Hysteria—which 132 years later provides the title of a romantic comedy.
Hysteria was thought to explain a wide variety of unpleasantries amongst the fairer sex, from depression to disobedience to volume of sex drive, whether too high or too low. The film Hysteria, written by Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer and directed by Tanya Wexler, opens with the legend “This story is based on true events,” adding, “Really.” Except that it isn’t. Not really.
Yes, there was a Mortimer Granville, credited with inventing the battery-powered vibrator and played in the film by Hugh Dancy. And there was a London and an 1880. But basically everything else in the film—all of the other characters and events—is made up out of whole cloth to suit the needs of a cutesy romantic comedy. Now, if the fictionalization of history (and the accompanying lie that it’s all real, honest) doesn’t bother you in the least, fair enough. Hysteria isn’t a history book, after all; it’s an entertainment.
And for a while, this entertainment is fairly brisk and light. Granville, tired of being told untruths like “Germ theory is poppycock!”, quits his job and applies for a position under one Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a thriving private practitioner who treats London’s upper-crust women for hysteria. His treatment involves, erm, lower-body massage that makes the women very happy at least once a week, alleviating their supposed uterine disorder.
Granville learns the tricks of the manual-stimulation trade, and catches the eye of Dalrymple’s younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones of Like Crazy). Immediately, he’s being groomed to marry Emily and one day take over the practice (a package deal). But after developing carpal tunnel syndrome, what’s a young doctor to do? Inspired by his tech-happy buddy Edmund St. John Smythe (a welcome Rupert Everett), Granville develops a vibrator prototype, and we’re off to the races.
But what’s all this about another daughter? A la The Taming of the Shrew, the mild Emily has an older sister who’s considered socially out of step, brazenly supportive of women’s rights and determined to pursue her own career as a social reformer running a settlement house for poor women and children. This is Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and of course this very modern woman bickers with Granville, a sure sign the two are meant for each other.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to have any idea how to sustain the story once the vibrator comes on the scene, and a third-act turn involving Charlotte going on trial makes for a supremely trumped-up contrivance. And Wexler at times tips the tone into Mel Brooks-land, with orgasms that have women singing opera or hooting, “Tally ho!” When it stays at ground level, this happily revisionist history is pleasant enough, but it’s all rather silly, don’t you know.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]