The opening scenes of Hysteria (trailer), the latest feature of US film director Tanya Wexler (“Finding North”, “Ball in the House”), paint a grim picture of Victorian age medical practices, a time it seems where medicine was less a science, and more a collection of ill-formed ideas that were used to diagnose and treat illness and injury.
Young London doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is appalled by the backwards thinking of his profession, one that even refuses to acknowledge the existence of germs. His passion for new ideas however soon sees him looking for work yet again, and eventually brings him to the door of Dr Robert Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) rooms.
Dalrymple’s exclusive West End practice specialises in treating a vague condition dubbed “female hysteria”, whose symptoms vary from fatigue, to anxiety, to sexual desire. Treatment effectively involves bringing sufferers to orgasm, or “hysterical paroxysm” to use the medical parlance of the day, by way of manual genital stimulation.
With London in the apparent grip of a female hysteria epidemic though, Granville soon falls victim to hand cramps, through constantly administering treatment. Learning a friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), is developing a motorised feather duster, Granville realises a modified device could be of service in his profession.
Partly factual, partly tongue-in-cheek, “Hysteria” is the story of how the ever popular sex toy, the vibrator, came to be. While laced with humour and clever puns though it is clear the narrative bites off far more than it can chew, something that is especially apparent when it comes to the roles of the lead women in the film.
Here Felicity Jones as Emily, Dalrymple’s daughter, is woefully underutilised as Granville’s studious, ordered, wife-apparent, while Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Emily’s feisty, exuberant, sister Charlotte, is tasked with championing the women’s vote, and raising awareness of various social issues, matters better suited to a separate story.