Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It's rare to see a film that is at once so playful and so openly political."

It is not uncommon, even today, for people to conclude that an irritable person needs to experience more sexual satisfaction. In the 1800s, with regard to women, this idea was taken completely seriously by doctors. Although they didn't understand it in straightforward sexual terms, believing that women could only experience that sort of pleasure when vaginally penetrated by men, specialists provided genital massage in an attempt to cure all manner of emotional disorders. The formal diagnosis for these was 'hysteria', which was in those days believed to be caused by the womb travelling up and down inside the body and squashing other organs. Whilst some women were out campaigning to be given the vote, others queued up to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.

Providing this massage as often as it was requested reportedly led to doctors experiencing cramp and weakness in their hands. They were eventually rescued from their arduous work by the invention of the vibrator, itself initially seen as a medical device. This was the invention of one Joseph Mortimer Granville, whose story is reinvented here (taking quite a few liberties) in a surprisingly edgy romantic comedy with a multifaceted take on the liberation of women.

Copy picture

Granville is played by Hugh Dancy. It's a heavily mannered performance that some viewers may find wearing to begin with, but over time this earnest character becomes endearing. He's a young doctor whose desire to help the poor and to advance modern, scientific ideas like germ theory keeps getting him sacked. Eventually he is taken under the wing of erstwhile gynaecologist Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) and, despite his hesitation at helping middle class women with emotional problems instead of those in more urgent need, things seem to be going well. He's enchanted by Dalrymple's beautiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), an interest that seems to be encouraged. But then there's the other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the black sheep of the family. Forthright, fearsome and completely unconcerned with propriety, she seems to bring disorder everywhere she goes. Only gradually does Granville come to understand the difference she is making in the lives of poor people at her mission house, and it's a discovery that leads him to wrestle with his conscience.

It's rare to see a film that is at once so playful and so openly political. Charlotte's speeches about socialism and feminism still sound revolutionary today (it's not surprising this film only had a limited release in the US) and the overall emphasis on the vale of socialised medicine may have quite an impact in England, with feelings running high over changes to the NHS. To the film's credit, it never comes across as preaching (even if Charlotte does), and it substantiates these arguments subtly but effectively by providing a rich historical context. The force of Charlotte's arguments is key to the romantic tension that develops, with Granville never having encountered a woman like this before, and yet even at their most passionate they still leave room for comedy.

Then there's the sex. In keeping with the doctors' strictly medical understanding of what they are doing for hysterical woman, this is never visually explicit. Patients' nether regions are shielded by curtains; we see only the language of faces, with a series of actresses gamely taking on the challenge of conveying the pleasure to which they cannot directly admit. There's a tendency to slapstick here that may not work for everyone, but there's also a delightful sense of joy, of individuals whose lives are strictly regulated finally getting the chance to release all that tension. It's rare to see a film this positive about female sexuality and this emotionally liberated itself. Balancing the goings-on in the clinic is a subplot around Granville's dilettante inventor friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), who is referred to affectionately as a 'sexual deviant' but who is, again, portrayed with subtlety. The discovery of a young man sleeping on his staircase is never elaborated on and instead he serves as a means of commenting on other inventions of the age, including the telephone, which he soon starts using for phone sex. It's a nice comment on the inevitable fate of many of the most nobly-intentioned devices.

Cramming so much into 100 minutes takes considerable craft and Hysteria only occasionally mis-steps. A trial near the end is handled in a rather peremptory and unrealistic manner, but as a metaphor for changes occurring over a longer period, it's still effective. And whilst it may be harder to see quite what Charlotte sees is Granville than what he sees in her, it's never really implied that their route to happiness will be a conventional one. This is a bold and entertaining film that does much more than what it says on the tin. A real pleasure.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2012
Share this with others on...
Hysteria packshot
The story of the young doctor who invented the vibrator without understanding what it was really for.
Amazon link

Director: Tanya Wexler

Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler

Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Dominic Borrelli, Anna Chancellor, Kim Criswell, Georgie Glen, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Gemma Jones, Kate Linder, Teresa Mahoney

Year: 2011

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, France, Germany, Luxembourg


Tribeca 2012

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Spirit Of '45