For centuries hysteria was one of the most mysterious conditions known to medical science. The ailment was exclusive to women, and is believed to have been first diagnosed by the ancient Greeks. Plato echoed the belief that its diverse symptoms were due to a “wandering womb” that floated throughout the body causing all sorts of trouble.
This bizarre concept persisted until the modern era of medicine dispensed with the fantasy of a roving uterus, although the illness continued to exert a fascination. The nineteenth century was the great age of hysteria, culminating in the experiments of Charcot and the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. Nowadays, we don’t recognise hysteria as an illness at all. The symptoms are explained as neurotic disorders caused by sexual frustration and social oppression. When women began to take charge of their own sexual identities hysteria went into decline.
Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria is a lightweight comedy set in London during the Victorian era. Our hero is the young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who has lost one job after another through insisting on the need for proper hygiene. He finally secures a position with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specialises in the treatment of hysteria in wealthy middle-class ladies.
Dalrymple’s method is to supply his patients with protracted pelvic massages, until they undergo a “paroxysm” and experience feelings of relief. Granville learns the technique, and soon has his hands full.
Dalrymple is a widower with two daughters: the quiet, responsible Emily (Felicity Jones), who is keen on phrenology; and her elder sister, the loud, brash, socialialistic Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is devoted to helping the poor. From the minute we meet these daughters we assume that Granville will be initially attracted to the mild one, but end up with the firebrand. I will neither confirm nor deny this is the case.
When his brilliant career starts to unravel because of cramps in his massage hand, Granville is saved by a moment of inspiration. Visiting his friend, Edward St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), an enthusiast for the new fad of electricity, he realises that a device can do the work of the hand more speedily and efficiently. Together they develop a handheld electronic massager that we know today as a vibrator.
The massager is basically the hero of this story, while all the characters may be considered mere decoration. Mortimer Granville was a real person, and his invention of 1880 would become a runaway best-seller, a favourite purchase in mail order catalogues. Being real, however, does not make him any more plausible.
Hugh Dancy plays Dr. Granville as one of that breed of shy, diffident Englishmen that used to be a speciality with Hugh Grant. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays suffragette and socialist with all the necessary vigour, but her role is hardly more than a cardboard cutout. Although the film is full of talented actors, nobody manages to transcend the formulaic nature of the story. Perhaps this is the effect of an American director trying to capture the ambience of ye olde Britain. If you can’t crack the subtle codes of British society – which may take a lifetime – you are doomed to caricature.
One surprising aspect of Hysteria is that it is chaste to the point of puritanism. There is not a glimpse of bare flesh in the entire story, although the doctors spend a lot of time with one hand under a blanket. In the effort to avoid being smutty, Wexler has given us a tale that is disappointingly trite.
Even this did not save the movie from an R rating in the United States – an astounding classification in an era when children are all playing video games that are cocktails of sex, blood and violence. It must have sent the filmmakers into paroxysms.
Hysteria, UK, rated M, 95 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 14, 2012