"Hysteria" might be the most unlikely romantic comedy of the year -- if not the decade.
It's the story of two Victorians falling in love, at the same time one of them invents the vibrator. Plenty of women, certainly, are grateful to Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville for his work circa 1880. But it isn't his invention that earns the doctor the love of a good woman; it's his spiritual awakening, not, shall we say, his medical one.
The scene is set -- a little too obviously, really -- when Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) wipes some animal dung off his shoe on a piece of metal set up for the purpose outside the London hospital at which he works.
|2.5 out of 4 stars|
|Stars: Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones|
|Director: Tanya Wexler|
|Rated: R for sexual content|
|Running time: 100 minutes|
Granville is a modern man. Mostly. He keeps up with the latest scientific advances, and tries to institute regular hand-washing at the hospital. Granville is fired. For the umpteenth time, it turns out. In desperation, he applies for a position assisting a doctor who specializes in the disorder of the film's title.
"What do you know about hysteria?" Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) asks Granville, and is shocked by his answer. "Nothing? But it's a plague of our times!" Indeed, he estimates, half the women in London suffer from it.
And no wonder. Hysteria had a list of possible symptoms longer than just about any other diagnosis. They ranged from anxiety and nervousness to an unexplained inability to use a limb.
The treatment, as Dalrymple explains to his new disciple, was "vulvar massage," which would lead to a "hysterical paroxysm" that would "put the uterus in its proper place." This work leads to a great many jokes in the film -- it all gets a little too silly, in fact. It's hard to believe now, but doctors then really didn't see any sexual overtones to the treatment.
Granville becomes in such high demand that he develops carpal tunnel syndrome from his manual labors. And so is born, with the help of his rich, experimenting friend (played by a welcome Rupert Everett), the vibrator.
Granville ignores the patients -- because he has enough trouble deciding between his mentor's two daughters. Emily (the charming Felicity Jones) is a beautiful, virginal young thing who's trained all her life to be the perfect doctor's wife. Her rebellious sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, angers their father with her work on the wrong side of the tracks and her many speeches against his life's work.
And so this romantic comedy manages to combine love, history, suffrage and more in under two hours. It's an interesting mix, but doesn't quite work in the end. Because the over-the-top silliness of the sex jokes don't work, in terms of tone, with the serious things the film wants to say about the evolution of women's rights.