“You’re a confounding woman!” the exasperated Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) shouts at the outspoken Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). “You’re all fire and brimstone one moment, compliments and common sense the next!” The time is 1880 London, but the setting might have well been the present day, and the good doctor might have been speaking for males everywhere. Women are so complicated. And so moody and unpredictable, too!
That’s the humorous approach director Tanya Wexler takes with Hysteria, a light and relentlessly fluffy comedy about the invention of the vibrator — an electrical device created at the height of Victorian repression, when women were routinely diagnosed with an affliction that rendered them “hysterical.” Symptoms included insomnia, restlessness, an overwhelming sense of sadness or an irresistible urge to be allowed to vote in public elections.
Among the cures commonly prescribed in the era: hypnotism, long warm baths and sessions of vigorous horseback riding. The worst cases were given hysterectomies and institutionalized. “Hysteria” continued to be recognized as a medical condition until 1952, but the movie, written by the husband and wife team of Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, concerns itself with events a half-century earlier, when Dr. Granville finds an ingenious use for the electric duster his inventor friend (Rupert Everett) has created.
Hysteria feeds off the hugely charismatic performances by Dancy, who has a gift for comedy the movies have never fully explored, and Gyllenhaal, the exasperated feminist who has an amusingly short temper and zero tolerance for stupidity. The film fares best when exploring the different ways in which doctors treated their female patients — elaborate procedures involving rubbing oils and massages to help ease the drudgery of selfish husbands uninterested in the needs of their wives. A trial that takes over the third act isn’t quite as engaging — the screenwriters struggle to give literal voice to their themes of social revolution and sexual liberation — but Hysteria never gets too preachy or ponderous, and there’s something in the film to educate even the most learned viewer. Who knew, for example, that paroxysms were once interpreted by doctors as a sign of their patients’ well-being? Today, we call them something else – although for many women, they remain just as elusive. Some things even science can’t change.
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett.
Director: Tanya Wexler.
Screenwriters: Stephen Dyer, Jonah Lisa Dyer.
Producers: Sarah Curtis, Judy Cairo, Tracey Becker.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 95 minutes. Sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Boynton Beach, Palace, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray