Ever wonder how the vibrator, that being the sex toy that has liberated millions of women from a lifetime of sexual frustration, came into existence? No? As it so happens, neither have I but thanks to director Tanya Wexler and her fitfully amusing period Romantic Comedy… I guess this a Romantic Comedy… ‘Hysteria’… the veil of secrecy has been lifted. As an unrelated side note, my research for this article has unearthed the informational nugget that apparently Japanese women, as far as the nations go, are responsible for purchasing the most vibrators. This is neither here nor there as far as this movie is concerned, and I don’t know what this means, just passing along some knowledge that was passed to me.
Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a doctor in 1880’s England but unfortunately his newfangled medical theories, such as keeping wounds clean, using fresh bandages, washing hands, and eschewing the use of leeches keeps him an unemployed doctor. His cad of a good friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), a man who is the 1880’s version of a ‘gadget guy’, has graciously offered to pass along some of his unlimited wealth so he can do what he wants, but Mortimer wants to make it on his own.
Good fortune smiles upon young Mortimer when he meets Dr. Robert Dalyrmple (Jonathan Pryce) who specializes in feminine health, particularly relieving women of ‘hysteria’. What is Hysteria? Well, all of us know women, some of you are women, and your species is very confusing to most of us and I’m sure some of you are baffling to even yourselves. In the nineteenth century all of that confusion fell comfortably under the banner of ‘Hysteria’. The good Dr. Dalrymple has found a way to temporarily relieve women of the symptoms of hysteria simply by using his thumb and forefinger and applying gentle pressure in a rotating motion. That, my friends, is medical science in action. Being a student of cutting edge medical techniques, Mortimer is accepted as Dalrymple’s assistant, and the doctor needs the help because his patient list is unfathomably long and growing daily.
Dr. Dalrymple also has two daughters. The lovely and sophisticated Emily (Felicity Jones) who Mortimer has strong designs on, and also there’s the bombastic but passionate Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has all kinds of crazy ideas such as helping the poor and wanting to vote. She also recognizes her father’s two-finger motion for what it really is, and isn’t at all shy about letting him know. Charlotte and her behavior frustrates Mortimer, but her passion and her large heart intrigues the young man.
But where does the whole ‘vibrator thing’ come into play? Well unfortunately for Mortimer, hours upon hours of two finger motion has left his operating hand in a bad way, to the point he can’t even effectively do his job, plus it often takes hours to complete the treatment. So where Dr. Dalyrmple had big plans for Mortimer, sadly due to a few treatment mishaps he’s had to let him go. Remember the gadget guy? He just got a new gadget. A gadget which Mortimer believes can be retrofitted to help the sufferers of hysteria in a brand new way. And after a few ‘clinical trials’, where it once took hours to relieve hysteria, this new device can fix the symptoms in minutes. Amazing. Then some other stuff happens because we know that Mortimer and Charlotte have to get together in some kind of romantically comedic fashion.
So the first half of Ms. Wexler’s ‘Hysteria’ plays out like an uninvolving, detached, less entertaining version of ‘Masterpiece Theater’. The sets are wonderful, the accents are beautiful, the clothes are well appointed, people go about their proper British motions in proper British ways, but to be honest with you, not a lot of it was very entertaining. It was kind of like watching one of those DVD fish tanks. It’s pretty… but… you know… that’s about it. I’m sure it was all very important in building character and laying the groundwork for the hi-jinks and shenanigans to come, but it was what it was.
However, by the time Edmund gets his latest gadget and Mortimer finds a new use for it, and the shenanigans start to kick in… we have a movie that has gone from fairly static to amusing, at least in fits. Fitfully amusing is what I think I said. Now we have a comedy that is almost a farce in many ways and maybe leaning a bit toward the silly side, but at least it’s become an enjoyable one and maybe the slow first half did help in moving that along.
The ‘romantic’ part of the romantic comedy probably could’ve used a little more help though. Dancy and Gyllenhaal are certainly pleasing and attractive, on top of being talented actors, and it’s not that the two didn’t have chemistry together but they just didn’t spend enough time on screen together for an audience to surmise that these two characters could become madly in love with each other. Maybe less hi-jinks and more Mortimer /Charlotte interaction to further this romance concept along? Maybe, but who wants a movie with fewer shenanigans and less two-finger motion? I know I don’t.
‘Hysteria’ is a mixed bag of elements to be sure. Well acted, great looking, inconsistent, a little frustrating at times but ultimately pretty enjoyable. Shenanigans win out again.