If you don’t know what the film ‘Hysteria’ is about going in - for the faint of heart, I suggest you find out. Set in 1880, the women of London and perhaps the world over are inflicted with a condition known as Hysteria. Today it’s called "being a woman", but back in the day when women’s boredom and sexual dissatisfaction were unheard of and considered impossible, such a condition was blamed on the uterus. In extreme cases, surgical hysterectomy was recommended - but in its early and milder stages, a simple visit to the doctor for some... *ahem* physical relief was the order of the day.
Enter Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy). Mortimer is a young doctor tired of his colleagues' medieval practices at a time when leeches were the cure-all, and the idea of germs were considered poppycock. Mortimer searches for more with the idea to actually help patients instead of killing them, and he stumbles into the office of Dr Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) - the expert in Hysteria. With the addition of Mortimer to his practice, business is booming but unfortunately Mortimer is struggling to physically handle the work load - until one day, quite serendipitously, Mortimer and his best friend Edmund (Rupert Everett) invent the world's first vibrator. Add in a feisty feminist daughter, Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the young apple-of-his-eye Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones) to the mix and you’ve got one hell of a story.
When first confronted with a scene involving the “cure”, you can’t help but feel uncomfortable - a deliberate act on the part of the filmmaker you can only expect. But as the film moves on and the initial shock and immature giggles wear off, the story unfortunately becomes lazy. With a female director behind the wheel, the film takes on a self-righteous "look-how-naïve-you-were, we-know-better" attitude instead of being respectful to the time and plight of women of the day. Humour is all well and good, but when delivered with muddled tone and shoddy editing, the audience doesn’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh or become overwhelmed with empathy.
The audience doesn’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh or become overwhelmed with empathy.
It’s the juxtaposition of the subject matter versus the upper crust London setting that really keep the film moving, along with Gyllenhaal’s tenacious spunk, which is always superb to watch. The rest of the cast deliver great performances, but it’s Rupert Everett’s all-too-brief scene-stealing appearances, as well as Sheridan Smith’s ‘Molly the Lolly’, that really delight.
Film practices aside, this film is all in good fun, and an education for some. It’s certainly not a wasted afternoon at the cinema.