Hysteria opens with a montage — Victorian ladies from old to young are complaining to an unseen doctor about their troubles, ranging from uncontrollable sobbing to a vague complaint of “feelings.” It’s the 1880s, and hysteria is an epidemic among the women of London. We’re introduced introduced to a richly textured world of horse-drawn carriages and classist social morals. It’s a time when a woman riding a bicycle is shocking, and you could lose your home over a 200 dollar debt.
Hugh Dancy plays Dr. Mortimer Granville, a handsome young doctor whose revolutionary ideas (germ theory!) and straightforward manner get him kicked out of most of London’s hospitals. He eventually lands at Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s practice. The good Dr. Dalrymple is an expert in vulvar massage — the treatment relieves those annoying thoughts and mood swings associated with hysteria. The doctors naively assume that the stimulation provides no pleasure (pleasure is, of course, only possible through penetrative sex), and a half-hour under Dr. Dalrymple’s twirling index finger brings a “paroxysm” (read: orgasm) that brings the uterus back into normal alignment and cures the woman… at least until next week.
Maggie Gyllenhaal explodes onto the screen, railing about the incipient women’s revolution and being the Dalrymple family’s embarrassing black sheep: she works at a settlement house, helping poor women and children get their lives together. She’s hands-on and feisty, apologizing for nothing. Her father will offer no financial support until she settles down and gets married. Felicity Jones plays Emily Dalrymple, Charlotte’s sister, and Jones has the unenviable job of playing Granville’s safe crush: the doctor’s daughter, steeped in social niceties and a believer in the debunked science of phrenology. Compared to Gyllenhaal, Jones sort of fades (for those who want to see her shine in a more modern love story, check out Like Crazy, in which she sparkles). Emily represents the past; Charlotte, though brash and overwhelming at times, is moving towards the future. Dr. Granville is stuck between what he should do, and what he feels obliged towards.
It becomes apparent that Dr. Granville is quite accomplished at vulvar massage, and the practice is booming. But the magic touch doesn’t come without a price: Granville develops a painful spasm in his hand that interferes with his ability to treat his clients. After failing to satisfy an influential patient, the young doctor is accused of besmirching the Dalrymple practice and is dismissed. He retreats back to his friend and benefactor Edmund, and begins to soothe himself with Edmund’s new invention: a vibrating, rotating feather duster. As Granville handles the tool, he notices the similarity between his clinical work and the tool’s effects. Eureka! The electric vibrator is born.
The movie springs forward with an engagement and a trial, several on-screen orgasms and a heartfelt speech. The vibrator is a success, of course, but Charlotte is in financial trouble and Dr. Granville has a tough romantic decision to make. The movie is sprightly and light on its feet: the characters are likeable and the dialogue is heavy on sexy-sounding puns. Hysteria trips up a little when it delves into politics — Charlotte is liberal even by today’s standards, but her vision of a clean, safe place for women and their children is unimpeachable. The acting is solid across the board, and although the film could have easily become a trifle, the politics keep it grounded and meaningful. It’s the stuff of romantic comedy, to be sure, but the vibrator is one of the best inventions of the last 150 years — a tool that allows women to take control of their sexual pleasure — and this looks at its invention is a solid little gem.