‘Hysteria’: Naughty Victorians and no surprises

Directed by Tanya Wexler, Hysteria purports to tell the story of the invention of the vibrator in 1880s London. (“The following is based on real events. Seriously” declares an impish opening title.) Handsome young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) gets fired from one post after another, as the London medical establishment refuses to listen to his ideas for introducing modern hygiene practices into the treatment of the poor.

At a loss, he signs on to be the assistant to the patrician Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, the old pro here), who has shrewdly turned the treatment of “hysteria” in bourgeois and upper-class women into a lucrative practice.

What these genteel women really suffer from is sexual frustration, their husbands being too neglectful and/or unenlightened to even consider that their wives might have needs of their own; “hysteria” is the Victorian-era establishment’s convenient catchall term not just for the women’s physical frustrations but for all the attendant yearnings, depression, complexes, etc. Not that Dr. Dalrymple is interested in any wider social implications of his patients’ condition — his practice is based simply on providing women with “paroxysms,” via manual stimulation of the uterus. The female patient’s genitals are discreetly screened off by a small velvet curtain, the doctor inserts a well-lubricated hand, the patient experiences her release, and then doctor and flushed patient agree on another appointment, same time next week.

Mortimer soon finds that servicing Dr. Dalrymple’s growing clientele makes his hand awfully tired, not to mention sore. Thus, when he comes across his aristocratic patron Edmund (Rupert Everett, looking like he had a run-in with a cosmetic surgeon in a dark alley somewhere) experimenting with a rotating handheld fan, Mortimer has a Eureka! moment, and the first prototype vibrator comes to pass. Soon Dr. Dalrymple’s client list explodes, and Mortimer and Edmund’s efficient little gizmo spreads to private practices all over London.

The filmmakers render all of this in tones of tittering amusement. Hysteria is the latest in a long list of arthouse releases predicated on a simple equation: socially ‘inappropriate’ or risqué behavior is hilarious if performed by characters who speak in posh English accents. (Think pot-smoking grannies or retirees starring in a pinup calendar.) If the sight of a lady of the manor–type lustily yelling “Tally ho!” while her peaked-looking doctor gamely thrusts his hand behind that velvet curtain strikes you as hilarious, then Hysteria is the movie for you.

The film aspires to be more than a tee-hee farce, however. When Mortimer signs on to Dr. Dalrymple’s practice, he’s soon charmed by Dalrymple’s younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones and her adorable overbite). But that’s nothing compared to the agitation he feels whenever he encounters Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dalrymple’s older daughter, a fiery suffragette and social reformer who runs a medical clinic for the poor. In concept, Charlotte is akin to a 20th-century screwball heroine with a dash of Joan of Arc in her. But virtually every time she speaks it’s to deliver another harangue about the hypocrisies and sexism of Victorian society; we get it the first time. (Er, right, because otherwise it wouldn’t be Victorian society, would it?)

As if to emphasize that this isn’t exactly a fair fight, feisty Charlotte is young and glamorous, with a flattering wardrobe. Meanwhile everyone who questions or opposes her is at best a stuffed shirt, if not borderline grotesque, with physiognomies and getups that make them look ridiculous, even goonish.

The movie ends up being a long exercise in self-congratulation that flatters and comforts the audience at every turn. Not only are the plot developments here unsurprising, you can often guess what the punchline of a given scene will be a few beats before it arrives.

Hysteria exemplifies a curious development, wherein a movie that is thuddingly obvious in script and execution is somehow — simply because it isn’t a superhero or franchise picture — an arthouse or ‘limited’ release. You’d be hard pressed to find much nuance or subtext here, let alone anything challenging. The performances are perfectly competent, even spirited; these are established professional actors, after all. Yet the directing and the slick editing are geared toward making sure that everything is spelled out to the nth degree.

In this type of filmmaking — reminiscent of old-school network TV dramas, but with sleeker production values — ambiguity is to be avoided at all costs. The filmmakers don’t trust the viewer to be capable of seeking out and discerning the meaning of a shot himself. Every cut, every reaction shot has to be as literal and on the nose as possible. It’s an approach that ensures that even the most inattentive viewer won’t fail to get the point of any scene, any line of dialogue.

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