Synopsis: Based on a true story. 1880. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a young doctor disillusioned by his colleagues' medieval practices. He starts working for Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who treats cases of the female ailment commonly known as hysteria by offering them intimate manual relief. Demand becomes so great that Dalrymple and Mortimer cannot keep up with 'curing' women. To keep Mortimer working, Dalrymple promises him his business, and the hand of his beautiful young daughter (Felicity Jones). But when Mortimer falls for Dalrymple's older daughter, the feisty thirty-year feminist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who runs a women's refuge in east London, his future looks doubtful. In desperation, he invents a machine that will at least solve his medical challenges – the world's first vibrator.
Story of vibrator's invention fails to satisfy.
Save for some convincing period detail, nothing about the film rings true
Have you seen that Greg Kinnear film, Flash of Genius? It’s a beautifully made dramatic true story about American inventor Robert Kearns, whose creativity and drive led him to make a discovery that had a profound effect on millions of people. Kearns, you see, was the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.
If one needed any further proof that the international film industry is still a boys’ club, you don’t need to look any further than how serious Marc Abraham’s social drama was in comparison to the silly, shrill treatment of a similarly influential invention in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria. The invention in question is the world’s most popular self-pleasuring accessory for women, the vibrator.
Five writers – all of them male – conspire to tell the story of young upstart physician Mortimer Granville (a twitchy, insipid Hugh Dancy), whose forward-thinking views on the latest medical theories do not sit well with the Victorian-era London establishment. Almost destitute, he accepts a job with well-to-do practitioner Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a traditionalist making a nice penny treating women diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ but who are suffering from what is clearly, in modern parlance, sexual frustration.
Dalrymple views it in different terms, in keeping with the prudishness of the period, but his methods are quite modern: he manually stimulates the women until they experience what he terms ‘a paroxysm’. In line with the overall ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ tweeness of the film, these scenes are played for cheap laughs, like when a Spanish opera singer breaks into boisterous song mid-stimulation, or a spinster knocks the good doctor to the ground with an involuntary climactic kick.
Granville assumes Dalrymple’s duties but his wrist and finger muscles can’t keep up with the demands of the booming business. It is quite by accident that, while visiting his eccentric friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), he stumbles upon a device that may be able to do the work his tendons can no longer perform. The resultant success he achieves sees him soar in the circles of high society, his ascension to the upper crust forged on the back of women who are on their backs.
The subplot is a romantic triangle involving Granville and Dalrymple’s two daughters: snooty daddy’s girl Emily (Felicity Jones) and feisty firebrand Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The miscast American actress overplays the latter role, compensating for her underwritten part with lots of screen time. Charlotte boisterously favours a classless society and takes a reactionary stance against her father’s staid ways. Her character is clearly a means to link the invention of the vibrator with the early days of the women’s liberation movement. However, in using Charlotte as its figurehead, Hysteria hardly presents a convincing argument.
It’s a terrible shame that the back-story to one of the most influential personal devices of the last 100 years was told with such puerile pedantry. Save for some convincing period detail, nothing about the film rings true. In fact, if I may indulge in the script’s overall reliance upon smuttiness, Hysteria rubbed me the wrong way.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
Land, Money and Power… Dig deep into Australia’s epic history of mining.
The Tony award-winner sings Broadway numbers and re-imagines modern tunes from Lady Gaga to Sting.