Film review: HYSTERIA, from Built For speed

Hysteria is, believe it or not, a romantic comedy about the development of the vibrator in Victorian England and it may turn out to be one of the funniest films of the year.

Set in the late 1880’s, a time of social and intellectual upheaval, the film fictionalises the creation of the sex aid as a treatment for the condition known as hysteria, a catch-all term ascribed to women experiencing among other things anxiety, melancholia and nymphomania. Doctors at the time strangely enough credited hysteria to “wandering uterus” and prescribed digital massage of female genitalia by a male doctor as the treatment.  As the film makes clear, this diagnosis and treatment were products of a misguided, male-dominated society that didn’t know how to deal with the unsavoury topic of women’s oppressed desires.

Hugh Dancy stars as the amusingly named Dr. Mortimer Granville, a progressive young physician battling the medical old guard who at the time preferred bleeding and leeches to the latest advances like germ theory. When he scores a job in an upmarket London clinic that treats women with hysteria, he finds his role is to provide patients with digital stimulation.  As a handsome young guy he basically becomes Deuce Bigalow to society women.  When hand cramps inevitably take their toll, he hits on the idea of using a machine to do the job. While his career flourishes his views of female sexuality and social justice are challenged by his employer’s fiery suffragette daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Gyllenhaal’s appearance represents an attempt to link the vibrator plot thread to broader social issues during the industrial revolution.  This isn’t entirely successful but occasionally allows some thought provoking and amusing commentary about the way in which female sexual liberation collided with prevailing patriarchal attitudes.  Despite the Victorian setting, the film is actually reminiscent of those quirky British sex comedies from the late 60’s that usually starred Patrick Cargill and drew on the clash between the emerging counterculture and the uptight British establishment.

Hugh Dancy does a fine job as the clever but bumbling young doctor blissfully unaware that he is being used like a prostitute.  Maggie Gylenhall – with a spot on English accent – balances out the film’s quirkiness with her portrayal of a woman confronting the poverty and injustice of the time.  Best of all though is Rupert Everett as Dancy’s buddy Edmund St John-Smythe a debauched, rakish lounge lizard who spends his time inventing gadgets and delivering barbs at his upper class peers.

Although based on a stage play, the film is still a visually attractive piece of cinema, bathing its London and Luxembourg locations in a sumptuous Victorian-era look.

While Hysteria’s third act is a little pedestrian, this is still a strange, assured and funny romp.

Nick’s rating:  Four stars

Classification: M

Director: Tanya Wexler

Running time: 100 mins.

Release date: 12th July 2012

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