The unlikely invention of the vibrator


Rating HysteriaHysteriaHysteriaHysteria

Directed by Tanya Wexler. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Tobias Menzies, Gemma Jones, Anna Chancellor, Jules Werner, Sheridan Smith, Leila Anaïs Schaus, Ashley Jensen. Written by Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer.

With its premise – the unlikely, unexpected invention of the vibrator – Hysteria seems like it should be a riotous farce. And as the doctors stand in front of a female patient, legs spread apart, and they lower their goggles, rev up the generator, and creep forward with the world’s first vibrator – a mechanical duster with the feathers stripped off – well, this is pretty riotous.

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Unfortunately, that’s only about half the movie. The invention of the vibrator as a cure for the titular ‘disease’ is merely the backdrop for a disappointingly routine romance, layered with a hearty dose of feminism that isn’t exactly out of place given the subject matter, but isn’t exactly well-integrated, either. When the film (frequently) dishes out it’s ‘message’, it seems to forget that it’s a comedy.

Thankfully, Hysteria is never dull, and it’s often amusing enough to warrant a pass. But the romantic aspects are oh-so ordinary, and keep the film from really scoring. Had it just stuck to the basic premise, this could have been something special.

Hugh Dancy stars as Mortimer Granville, a progressive doctor in Victorian London who is tired of mainstream rejection of the germ theory and widespread use of bleeding, leeches, and even phrenology as legitimate medical procedures. This mentality doesn’t do him much good in his professional career, however.

In search of employment, Mortimer finds himself at the door of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who has quite the exclusive practice: he treats women diagnosed with hysteria, the once-common, female-only catch-all diagnosis for a wide variety of symptoms. Dalrymple’s method of treatment? Vaginal massage.

The film has a lot of fun with this, especially when Mortimer loses his touch, so to speak, after some hand cramping, and inventor-friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) steps in with some mechanical alternatives.

By this time, however, Hysteria seems almost disinterested in the story of the vibrator; instead, we focus on Mortimer’s relationship with Dalrymple’s two daughters, the prim and proper Emily (Felicity Jones) and the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, donning a British accent). Dalrymple even diagnoses his daughter with hysteria, and I thought the film might get truly dark…but no, it’s not that subversive.

Hysteria is the second film in recent months to deal with the titular diagnosis; the first was David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which dealt with Carl Jung and his patient and future colleague Sabina Spielrein. The films couldn’t be more different, but their proposed cure for hysteria is remarkably similar.

Director Tanya Wexler is the niece of famed cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest); Hysteria doesn’t exactly come with same pedigree, and the cinematography by Sean Bobbit (who shot Hunger and Shame so beautifully for Steve McQueen) doesn’t quite feel right – colors are too rich and deep, the image, perhaps, over-manipulated in post-production.

Amusing, even uproarious in spots, Hysteria is worth catching, even if the subject matter isn’t done full justice.

Also opening this week:

  • War of the Buttons (showtimes | IMDb), an adaptation of the famed Louis Pergaud novel, previously filmed in 1937, 1862, and 1994. Screening in French with Czech subtitles.
  • Rok konopí (Year of Mari©huana; showtimes), a cannabis-themed documentary, screening in Czech.

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