Film Review: Hysteria (2011)

“It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time”

I’ve had this film on my Lovefilm list for ages – I love Maggie Gyllenhaal so I knew I’d get round to it one day but I have to say it has never really grabbed me as a must-see. When a play about the invention of the vibrator was announced, it seemed as good a time as any to compare and contrast the two. A 2011 film directed by Tanya Wexler, Hysteria quickly loses points by teasing us with Anna Chancellor in its opening scene, only to never feature her again. That aside, it is actually quite the enjoyable watch as a good-natured and good-intentioned take on Victorian innovation.

Here, the vibrator is invented by Dr Mortimer Granville, a young forward-thinking doctor reduced to assisting a Dr Dalrymple in the treatment of female ‘hysteria’, basically inducing paroxysms in ladies’ private parts with his nimble fingers. His reputation for…hitting the spot, shall we say, soon means he is much in demand in society but as his arm grows overtired, his mind seeks for alternative ways of scratching the itch. Against this, is Granville’s interactions with Dalrymple’s daughters – the quietly permissive Emily and the one-woman suffragette movement Charlotte. 

It’s all rather simplified – Charlotte seems to be single-handedly helping the poor, teaching the children and winning the vote – but very charmingly done. Gyllenhaal’s sparkling spirit is just right for Charlotte, especially against the blanker charms of Felicity Jones as Emily, and Hugh Dancy is effective as Granville, handsome indeed but inquisitively charming as his mind is opened up to the world of women and their various wants and needs. Jonathan Pryce as the traditional Dalrymple is also good, especially when he has his various clients on the couch, legs akimbo at his mercy. 

As with any Britflick worth its salt, there’s a quality thespy edge to much of the supporting cast, aside from the aforementioned Chancellor. Sheridan Smith appears as a buxom serving wench to give her name (Molly the Lolly she’s known as…) to one of the first devices on the market – the Jolly Molly; Ashley Jensen plays another of her women down on their luck and Rupert Everett is lots of fun as Mortimer’s louche friend Lord Edmund St John-Smythe. Tobias Menzies as a grim lawyer, Maggie McCarthy’s housekeeper and Gemma Jones’ twinkling society lady are also good fun.

Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer and Howard Gensler’s script manages to tread a neat line between the inherent humour in the set-up and a more serious-minded look at the way women of different classes were treated in Victorian society, but never letting the latter weigh the film down away from its comic roots. A fun film to watch and infinitely more preferable than Sarah Ruhl’s play.

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