★★★ / ★★★★
After Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) had spoken out of turn against his superior about what ought or not ought be done in practicing medicine, the well-meaning doctor finds himself unemployed. Finding a new job proves difficult but Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), the leading specialist for treating women of “hysteria” by massaging their most gentle areas, hires Mortimer as his assistant because he relates to the young man’s spark and genuine willingness to relieve people of their afflictions. With Mortimer’s charming looks and talent for “massaging,” women of wealth from all over the city flocks to the clinic for weekly—some as often as daily—appointments.
“Hysteria,” based on the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is not the most focused story regarding the invention of the vibrator but it has more than enough individual scenes that deliver on their potential. Most importantly, it stands out as a period picture because it is able to take the subject matter of sexual repression inside out.
On one hand, it has an undercurrent of seriousness as women all over London are diagnosed by a fictional disease called “hysteria.” If a woman is frustrated about her marriage, angry toward her husband, or generally unhappy with her daily routine, doctors are quick to diagnose her as being infected by an incurable madness. Although a solemn mood never envelops the film completely, the screenplay makes it quite clear that women during this time period are second-class citizens, the status quo maintained by men not only because they have the power but that some are actually willing to abuse it.
On the other hand, it is a silly romp of various women sitting on chairs, their legs in stirrups, as the camera moves closely toward their faces in hopes of capturing each of their priceless reactions while a doctor’s fingers stimulate the vagina until they reach orgasm. The scenes are somewhat repetitive but they work because every woman responds to the stimuli in different ways. I enjoyed that even though the punchline is more or less the same, the reactions are not identical and so the level of entertainment does not dip. Seeing the older women happy after an appointment made me happy, too.
Less effective is Mortimer’s feelings toward Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who happen to be complete opposites. Emily is urbane, knowledgeable about a range of topics, especially in phrenology, her area of expertise, very womanly, and soft. Meanwhile, Charlotte is vulgar, loud at times, and each time she enters a room, it were as if a tornado had just arrived. Emily is the scholastic girl but Charlotte is the exciting girl.
Mortimer being attracted to Emily feels like a contrivance. Not for one second did I believe that they are going to end up together. And so when the picture cuts to their scenes, it feels like we are simply going through the motions for the sake of a subplot just being there. A sense of fun and focus in terms of storytelling are taken away when the two are around each other, flirting between glances, and giving sheepish smiles. It is supposed to be cute, I guess, but I found the charade bland and boring at times.
However, the interactions between Mortimer and Charlotte are occasionally interesting. I caught myself listening closely as they describe their goals in life, especially Charlotte’s because Gyllenhaal plays her with such light and vivacity.
Directed by Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” can be criticized for being too silly but I think the word should be taken as a compliment. With so many dour period films that have ambition but ultimately lacking in delight and versatility, the film shimmers like a seven-inch glow-in-the-dark vibrator in a dark room.