Hysteria – Film Review

I had the pleasure of moderating a Q and A with director Tanya Wexler and actors Jonathan Pryce and Hugh Dancy, after a recent screening of Hysteria for members of the NBR. Pryce was to open at BAM in the title role of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker on that very evening (NBR often screens in the morning) and Wexler had just arrived the evening before from a film premier in San Francisco.

A film by Tanya Wexler
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on May 18, 2012 on the website of The National Board of Review

Hysteria is a film that answers the age old question–what would happen if you made a film in the style of classic BBC Victorian dramas and mixed in the true story of the fortuitous discovery of the hand held self-massage tool commonly known as the vibrator? The answer, in the hands of filmmaker Tanya Wexler, is a great deal of fun for all concerned. She has constructed a film around an obscure historical event that is one part costume drama (set in Victorian England), one part romantic comedy (a young doctor caught between beautiful sisters who are polar opposites in temperament and politics) and one part astute social and political commentary.

The script, with a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, crafts clearly drawn characters that fit perfectly into the conventions of the romantic comedy. The casting, and Wexler’s deft directing ability, bring characters to life that is comical, likable, and fun. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Charlotte, a ball-of-energy social reformer who has dedicated her life to helping the poor by founding a fledgling woman’s suffragette movement, is the force of change that flows through the film, influencing all she comes into contact with. Gyllenhaal is “on” in almost every moment of screen time–her eyes radiant, her posture defiant, ready for any challenge to the funding of her clinic for the indigent. Felicity Jones plays her sister Emily, a polar opposite who follows her father’s dreams of wealth and living within the conventions of upper class society. But her father isn’t conventional in all ways. Played with a strict sense of propriety by Jonathan Pryce, Dr. Dalrymple has built a booming business releasing the hysterical symptoms of upper class women by masturbating them with clinical precision and the utmost detachment.

Unable to accept the standards of Victorian medical practice (bloodletting, the use of medicinal leeches, lack of cleanliness towards patients), Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy, is injected into the Dalrymple’s lives when he accepts a position assisting the father’s hysteria-abetting treatments. As befits the genre, young Granville is rewarded the proper Emily for his hard work at the clinic but ultimately finds himself drawn to the less conventional free-spirit Charlotte. Helping Granville along the way is Rupert Everett’s Edmund St. John-Smythe, who is quite gay, an eccentric inventor (creating a working telephone prototype and the world’s first electric powered feather duster simultaneously), and has the deep pockets necessary to support both lifestyles.

There is no real surprise in the way the conflicts and personal relationships play out, which is part of the film’s pleasure. Genres have conventions and comedies are built to satisfy our cravings for these rules to follow through to their expected conclusions. When Charlotte’s independence finally leads to her arrest and trial, it comes as no shock that Granville will be forced to decide between his allegiance to her father (and the trappings of success he offers) and his mounting admirations for her. Formulaic as the moment seems, the result still manages to engage our intellect (we’ve seen the roots of Granville’s decision take hold in his earlier actions) and our emotions (the penalties faced by Charlotte were cruel yet quite realistic).

Hysteria works as an historical comedy – the script, acting, cinematography (Sean Bobbitt previously shot Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame) and editing are well crafted. But the film has the added complexity of social commentary and is much more than a one-joke affair. It is ultimately a story of female empowerment, told through the development of technology. The inspiration for the vibrator comes about through the necessity of compensating for injury (hands can only be used to “remedy” the female body for so long). But the creation of the vibrator for medicinal purposes, as revealed through Wexler’s storytelling, is only the beginning of a process that cannot be stopped. Once removed from the hands of the (male) doctors–through the advent of battery powered portable devices–the vibrator offered the potential for women to seek their own “remedies”. Furthermore, its use need no longer be restricted to the scientific function of “hysteria release”. Women could finally, on their own schedules, let their hair down and have some fun. Echoing Freud’s yet to be uttered words, Dr. Dalrymple explains to Granville (while treating a patient) that there is no pleasure to be derived in the process of stimulating the external body–only remedy. A woman, he solemnly reveals, can only achieve pleasure from being penetrated by a man. As Hysteria reveals, it sometimes takes the invention of a new technology to show us the error of our ways.

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