Surprising at every turn, blushingly embarrassing even for the cynical, with too many laugh-out-loud moments to recount, “Hysteria” is, ostensibly, about the invention of the vibrator intended for personal use. This is a film for anyone who has ever used a hand held shower head for “deep cleaning” to alleviate stress, and you know you’re out there, or for those who’ve only imagined it; the issues raised in “Hysteria” still have relevance today.
It is London, 1880, and Dr. Mortimer Granville, a modernist current on all the latest research is dismissed from hospital after hospital for trying to implement Joseph Lister’s antiseptic method. By treating wounds with carbolic acid Lister was able to significantly reduce infection in the operating room. Even though Lister proved the relationship between germs and infection, and even though the simple act of hand washing would prevent the spread of germs from healers to the sick, physicians were slow to adapt and continued, almost until the end of the century, to use leeches to treat illness and perform their duties in filth.
Frustrated and out of options, Granville applies for a position assisting Dr. Robert Dalrymple, the city’s leading specialist in treating hysteria in women. Hysteria, from the Greek for “wandering uterus,” was the leading diagnosis for idiopathic female difficulties (the “idio” part most likely referred to the men who came up with the diagnoses) such as depression, rebelliousness, nymphomania, sexual frustration, marital discord and general malaise. Treatment, as you might imagine, had progressed from the original suggestion that women go horseback riding to the kind of gynecological manipulation practiced by the popular Dr. Dalrymple. Granville, an excellent student, more than doubles the practice and is well on his way to being offered a partnership and the hand of Dalrymple’s perfect Victorian daughter Emily. Dalrymple’s other daughter, Charlotte, is the bane of his existence. Out-spoken, a social reformer arguing publicly for women’s rights and the founder of a settlement house for poor women and children, she is the antithesis of a lady in society. Granville, courting Emily, finds himself drawn to Charlotte’s passion and therein lies the conflict.
When he develops hand cramps, his career seems to be over even as it had just begun. It is, however, an invention for another purpose designed by his eccentric friend Lord St. John Smyth that changes his life, and that of countless others.
Director Tanya Wexler puts a humorous face on what was a serious problem. Prior to Freud’s more specific delineation of hysteria as a mental disorder associated with traumatic sexual experience, hysteria was a catch all for unidentifiable female diseases. As character Charlotte deftly points out, hysteria was an imaginary problem of affluent women. Wexler and writers Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer cocoon the story of the electro-mechanical devise that will change the face of history, or at least the face of hysteria, within a depiction of London at the end of the Industrial Revolution and the inhumanity of Dickensian poverty. The frivolity of Granville and Dalrymple’s diagnostic fervor underscores the real issues of filth, poverty, injustice and cruelty that existed.
“Hysteria” truly comes alive because the outstanding cast plays it straight – no wink-wink or knowing glances. Leading this exemplary ensemble is Hugh Dancy, a stage actor of a renown exceeding his young age. Handsome, serious but with excellent comedic timing, he’s a leading man who commands the screen with an almost shy presence. Currently on Broadway in the play “Venus in Fur,” Dancy is on the threshold of a major film career. Playing opposite the great Jonathan Pryce as Dalrymple, Dancy more than holds his own and their interplay is like a fine violinist and his pianist, easily trading prominence depending on the situation. Pryce, seen too little on film, is able to convey everything with his great large eyes and a subtle raise of his brow. No speck of enjoyment ever crosses his countenance, even while you are laughing “hysterically.” Felicity Jones as Emily imbues a youthful propriety and innocence to her character that makes her achingly charming while Maggie Gyllenhaal has all the fun as Charlotte. In more minor roles, Ashley Jensen as a Settlement House resident and Sheridan Smith as a not quite reformed prostitute are excellent. It was wonderful to see Gemma Jones, the great British actress known most recently for her roles in the “Harry Potter” and “Bridget Jones” movies, in the small role of Lady St. John-Smythe. My only disappointment, not entirely surprising, was in Rupert Everett. Playing the eccentric inventor, Everett once again coasted through his role adding nothing but a voice dripping in Wildean decadence. He used to be so much more and this was tailor-made for the actor he used to be. That being said, he wasn’t bad, just not as good as he should have been.
Treat yourself to some vicarious fun and see this variation of the boy meets girl theme, a film that works on so many levels, one of which massages the brain and another which vibrates a bit south of the cranium. You will be, as the German title to this film is called, “In Good Hands”.
Opening May 18 at the Hollywood ArcLight and the Landmark.
Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at www.nomeanerplace.com.