Droll. If ever there were more an apt use for that word, here’s the movie. Hysteria is a comedic re-imagining of the invention and implementation of the first vibrator. It’s a spare film, a charming little tittler, if you find the idea of watching various women of a certain age decked out in Victorian finery making their “O” face amusing. But that’s only a small percentage of the actual film. It’s also one part awkward Austen-tatious love triangle, and one part struggle of the suffragette. It’s as if the judge who would imprison Oscar Wilde for the love that dare not speak its name instead forced him to compose several of those “One to Grow On” vignettes that ended all the Hasbro cartoons of the 80s. These parts really weigh down the buoyancy of the humor — yet they are most integral to the narrative. But I can’t fault director Tanya Wexler and the screenwriting team of Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer. In this current climate where politicians are attempting uterine colonization, wanting to pepper your vibrator comedy with feminist history is pretty understandable. The performances are relatively charming and the story canters along smoothly enough. When I attended the screening, a flock of middle-aged women came in during the previews, gabbing vivaciously and carrying shopping bags. They cackled with laughter throughout. I smiled politely.
Malcolm Granville (Hugh Dancy) can’t keep a physician position. Granville wants to adhere to the new sciences of germ theory and ensure that every patient gets proper and diligent care no matter what their age or social class. But Victorian doctors would rather leech ‘em, lop off limbs, and go sup on leg of lamb whilst sipping port. He consistently gets fired from various medical facilities, much to the amusement of his wealthy benefactor, Edmund St. John-Smythe (the unfortunate remains of what once was Rupert Everett). Edmund is a mad tinkerer — with his boundless riches he’s able to dally with various types of electrical apparatuses. Much folly comes about from his owning one of the very first telephones — ahoy ahoy!
After a delightful montage of Malcolm being rejected by various frock-coat medicos, he finally seems to find luck as the assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple is the foremost expert in tending to female patients who suffer the various forms of “hysteria,” which seems to be the catchall for anything from headaches to depression. Dr. Dalrymple’s cure involves these women laying on a table with their legs akimbo while a whimsical little curtain set covers their nethers while the good doctor applies various oils to his hands and proceeds to manually masturbate them for well on an hour. Of course, it’s never called something so insidious as masturbation because before the twentieth century, women weren’t permitted to have orgasms or basic mathematical training. Hysteria isn’t about uterus, it’s about uter-YOU. Being fucked up and probably insane. So sexually frustrated women had two options: a) complain and be institutionalized and potentially lobotomized or b) have an elder doc give them a weekly fingerbang.
But Dalrymple’s getting up in the years, so he needs a hand around the office. Granville rises to the task, and with a handsome young man doing the lube job, the appointment books a filling as Granville’s carpal tunneling himself into forced retirement. Fortunately, Edmund’s personal feather duster device sans feathers seems to be a wonderful replacement for digital diddling, and thus we have the world’s first vibrator, which resembles some sort of steampunk death ray that Jules Verne’s would use to go 20,000 Leagues Beneath Her Seat.
Had the film just been about this, it would have probably been a wild success. And yet, there’s a huge subplot involving the good Dr. Dalrymple and his two daughters, his charming and polite youngest daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and her firebrand social working suffragette older sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Malcolm finds himself becoming betrothed to Emily because this is the Victorian era and that’s how these things work. Parasols and loveless engagements. Charlotte is simply unacceptable. She dares claim that most of her father’s patients would be better served if their husbands were actually willing to take the time to love them properly. She spends most of her days running a failing shelter/daycare, where she has to beg money from her irate father and his friends. Remember her character from Secretary? It’s as if the director said, “Alright, do that but the exact opposite in every possible way.”
The acting’s good, but they suffer from having to play these particular characters. There’s a delightful bevy of supporting characters, particularly the saucy reformed prostitute housemaid Molly (Sheridan Smith). Rupert Everett is wonderful and snippy and everything we’ve always loved about him. It’s just a damn shame he’s locked in that melted wax mannequin of a botched surgical job. Hilariously, Jonathan Pryce has allowed snow to accumulate on the roof and wrinkles aplenty and he’s even more debonair than ever, and equally delightful. Felicity Jones is a glorious angel none of us deserve, and she’s been saddle with some unfortunate parts. This is one of them. But it would be a bad part for anyone, so at least she’s precious to look at. Like a Hummel or some shit. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Oh, Mags. Look, I love her. I truly do. I just don’t like her like this. And as much as detractors would love to sling this as my failure to appreciate a “strong female character,” she’s just shrill and harsh. She’s like a she-crow in a bonnet. And it seems like I have a grudge against Hugh Dancy, but I don’t. I think he’s the Threepenny Opera Bradley Cooper. He’s a very able actor, but he strikes me a benchwarmer on an extremely talented team. It’s not that he’s not good, it’s that there are at least five other people that are better for his roles.
Hysteria is an incredible short comedy about the invention of the personal private massager wink wink buried in a ninety minute suffragette piece. It yearns to be extremely feminist promoting, all the while insinuating that the vibrator was invented because lady handjobs TAKE. FOREVER. It’s why movie theater foolin’ around involves mostly pleasuring the dudes. Because films only last 90 minutes. Plus, it takes men to save day in Hysteria. It’s a delightful little distraction that’s not going to change your life. Again, it might be there very thing that hits your happy spot and totally blows you away. But it wasn’t making me hit any high notes.