“Hysteria” is Tanya Wexler’s often hilarious, nicely appointed period piece about Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young doctor who struggles to bring the discoveries of germ theory into practice only to find redemption by inventing the electromechanical vibrating massage tool.
The film takes place in 1880s London, where new ideas about how bacteria spread disease are still controversial. After Granville’s adamant demands for sanitation protocols cause him to lose yet another job, a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) provides an opportunity for the beleaguered doctor.
View video: Trailer for “Hysteria.”
It’s hard to find an empty chair in Dr. Dalrymple’s waiting room. When the rigors of his non-stop medicinal massage technique require him to search for another set of reliable hands, Granville finds himself at the right place for both work and a possible love interest (or two) – Emily (Felicity Jones), Dalrymple’s perfect daughter, and her socially rambunctious sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Dalrymple is London’s leading practitioner in the treatment of hysteria, an epidemic afflicting the uterus that is believed to cause all kinds of behavior disorders. Sigmund Freud even wrote a book about it.
According to the overwhelmingly male medical establishment of the time, hysteria was a taxonomic grab bag of symptoms large enough to accommodate a herd of elephants. The shortlist includes anxiety, nymphomania, frigidity, mania, melancholia, verbosity, muteness, argumentativeness and other forms of uppitiness, including but probably not limited to the impudent refusal to have dinner ready in a timely fashion.
Dalrymple believes that manually stimulating certain parts of the female anatomy is the key to curing female hysteria. A successful treatment culminates in “hysterical paroxysm,” a phrase that sounds much less enjoyable than “!Orgasmic OMG Ecstasy” – which it suspiciously resembles.
The procedure requires puppet-show curtains discreetly mounted over the afflicted pelvic area. Everyone remains as fully clothed as possible. When the process goes electric, the good doctors even don welder’s glasses.
It never occurs to Dalrymple or even the well-informed Dr. Granville that hysteria and women’s disenfranchised lives – no opportunity to vote, own property, or achieve sexual satisfaction – might be connected.
Granville may have been ahead of his time as a scientist and inventor, but only Charlotte questions the cognitive biases around class and gender. In 1880, female sexuality is still as mysterious as the dark side of the moon – unseen and open to much speculation (until the Soviet’s Luna 3 satellite sent back the first photos in 1959 – of the moon, not the G-spot. Debate over the latter persists to this day).
Across the pond, Thomas Edison’s work on the light bulb, phonograph and telephone – fired up by his patented electric power distribution system – is profoundly changing the world, and not a moment too soon for Drs. Dalrymple and Granville, whose non-stop massage treatments are beginning to take a physical toll.
Rupert Everett plays Edmund St. John-Smythe (no relation to Alan Smithee), an early adopter and inventor who owns a new-fangled telephone. When he shows off his electric duster gadget, Granville has a momentous insight. He makes a few adjustments to the pleasantly buzzing device, and voilà – electricity and a pinch of ingenuity bring good things to life.
Historical record credits the actual Mortimer Granville with patenting the first electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s, although it would take good ol’ American know-how and Hamilton-Beach to bring the device to the mass consumer market in 1902.
Howard Gensler’s original story was massaged into the “Hysteria” screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer.
See playdates and locations for “Hysteria” HERE.