Director: Tanya Wexler
Writers: Stephen Dyer (story & screenplay), Jonah Lisa Dyer (story & screenplay), and Howard Gensler (original story)
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce
It’s amazing to think that we were once at a point in society when “germs” was a term that only those who were highly educated and kept up with the latest medical literature knew. It’s also amazing that once the cure to pretty much all of women’s ailments came in the form of induced orgasm. For a topic that is so controversial and frowned upon by respectable people it is amazing that Hysteria was such a joy to watch.
Hysteria is based on a true story of a man named Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who found himself as the accomplice to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a doctor who specialised in women’s health, mainly the treatment of hysteria, a diagnosis of women who had all sorts of symptoms and was treated by helping the women by ridding them of these ailments in a most unusual way. Dr Dalrymple has two daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) who is very sensible and all of what a true woman should be, and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is volatile, erratic, a fervent suffragette, and who runs a shelter for women and their children and teaches them about hygiene, literacy, and numeracy. Charlotte is everything a woman of the Victorian period should not be.
As Granville continues to serve his patients he himself suffers an ailment in his hand which makes him unable to fulfill the procedure required to cure his patients of hysteria. It is with the friendship of Granville and his inventor friend Edmund St. John-Smyth (Rupert Everett) that holds the key to Granville’s continued employment and ultimate success.
But this film isn’t about the invention of the vibrator as the posters and blurbs will tell you. Hysteria is about the ill-treatment of women and their capabilities even to this day. Gyllenhaal’s vibrant and passionate portrayal of Charlotte Dalrymple is inspiring as you see her struggle to change the culture in which she lives by simply caring for those less well off. It is through her servitude to the lower classes that she makes a huge difference in the long run for those she helps. She is a socialist, a libertarian, a woman. It is this characterisation which holds the entire film together for me. It reveals the true nature of what was going on at the time and sheds some light on what is still going on in our society today.
This film is light-hearted and fun. Rupert Everett is brilliant as ever and Hugh Dancy plays an uptight Brit most splendidly. I think this story could only be told faithfully in a British and prudish manner as it deals with a subject that could be twisted and sexualised and thus lose a lot of its appeal. It is told in a period manner with all the nuances of innuendo and suggestion and it is truly satisfying in the way it addresses an awkward invention and period in history.
It’s not the greatest film ever made, nor is it probably even up in the top 500 but it is delightfully light and well performed by all involved. Top marks go to the costume and set designers of this film. It is gorgeous to watch. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is so wonderful as a Brit that I wish she was more highly acclaimed than she is. She is a marvelous actress and is charming to watch. I’d go see it just for her.
For a film that could truly be awkward and unappealing, Hysteria offers a pleasurable look at the invention of the modern vibrator and the beginning of women’s health in Britain.