It’s tricky to make a comedy about hysteria. It was the catch-all diagnosis of the Victorian era, and while it certainly offered some wild moments of comedy (like the creation of the vibrator), it was also a lazy diagnosis used to contain women’s humanity. Nearly anything and everything would and did get labeled as hysteria, including normal behaviors like irritability, faintness, and insomnia, menstrual issues like fluid retention, serious afflictions like epilepsy, and even condescending chauvinistic attitudes like “a tendency to cause trouble.” If a woman did something unseemly, she would be labeled hysterical, whether she had a terribly dangerous adversity or was just having a bad day. Some treatments were as simple as using “pelvic massage” to achieve “hysterical paroxysm,” while other women gained life-long sentences to sanitariums for their behavior. It’s a heady, and often heart-wrenching piece of medical history, yet director Tanya Wexler manages to make a film that’s both funny and true to its roots.
Hugh Dancy’s Dr. Mortimer Granville just wants to help people. He’s a doctor, but at every turn he is thwarted by hospital heads who battle against modern science. He tries to explain that dirty bandages contain germs and that leeches and current medicinal practices aren’t working, and they scoff and fire him over and over again. This is a world wildly foreign to our modern sensibilities. This is Victorian England, when doctors questioned germs, or masturbated women to orgasm while swearing that A) it’s in no way sexual, and B) that their “release” is “paroxysm” because women are incapable of orgasm.
After spurning monetary help from his rich inventor friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), Dr. Granville sets up shop with Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). He exclusively deals with hysteria patients, but these aren’t women suffering the raving extremes of the affliction. These are unfulfilled (mentally and sexually) rich women who have nothing wrong with them and to be perfectly blunt, are desperate to get off as often as possible. Soon Mortimer is completely immersed in the Dalrymple world. He’s courting daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, whose character also studies a questionable science, phrenology, the study of skull shapes), and he watches with outsider awe as the doctor tries to deal with his rebellious other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dalrymple condescendingly explains that Charlotte is hysterical because she continually argues with him over helping the less fortunate. While her father gives hand jobs, she struggles to run a self-made community center for a London slum. Hysterical, indeed.
Mortimer excels at his work, and Dalrymple wants to make him a partner, but things take a turn for the worse again when he becomes increasingly plagued by hand pain. He is, essentially, masturbating multiple women for hours each day and his hand just can’t take it — the trials of Victorian doctors. Things look bleak until Edmund’s vibrating feather duster offers Mortimer real muscular relief (a nod to the real man behind the vibrator*). They create a machine, test it with real steampunk verve, and soon they’re all the rage in London.
Ripping away the historical context, this is simply the story of a man who has some progressive notions in his work, but doesn’t realize how absolutely antiquated many of his actions and beliefs are. He’s the doctor who argues about germs and rants about stodginess, then romantically links himself to a woman who follows his same prim and proper habits, he’s the doctor who rants about old medicine and then builds notoriety through an affliction that he doesn’t take the time to question.
The premise is ridiculous and simplistically funny (man applies oil to hand, old, perfectly-coiffed Victorian woman squeals and contorts with pleasure), but also finds its heart in this simplicity. This is not an overtly clever script by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, but it’s a perfectly funny and educational one. Hysteria isn’t meant to be a hard-hitting emotional whirlwind. It uses comedy to relay a funny historical fact while also unveiling the social darkness that clouds it. (It could be heard in the TIFF audience as girls giggled for well over an hour, but then gasped as the darker side to hysteria is revealed.) Yes, the subject matter could also offer a darker, more acerbically ironic piece where everyone handles themselves with the same smarmy verve as Rupert Everett (who is seriously wonderful and absolutely scene-stealing in this film), but that’s a bit besides the point. This isn’t meant to be a challenging, wildly artistic feature that caters to a certain cinephile audience. It’s a piece to entertain mainstream fans while giving a little history and feminism at the same time.
But that isn’t to say its lazy. One of the most clever inclusions is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte. She seems too modern for such a world, nothing more than a character written in a certain way so that she can give the tale a sense of modernity, balance the misogyny, and help teach the audience about the darker side of hysteria. But we must remember that while England was still rigidly backwards in many ways, the suffragette movement was quickly gaining steam. Charlotte lives in a time when women like Bessie Rayner Parkes and Emmeline Pankhurst were fighting for the rights and capabilities of women, when Mary Anne Evans was thriving under the pen name, George Eliot.
It’s a rare film that can take a serious medical faux pas and historic feminism and merge the pair into an easy-to-digest mainstream period comedy, but Tanya Wexler pulls it off with ease, offering a film that’s simple, lively fun.
*Note: The real Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville created an electric vibrator used for muscle aches, and thought that using the device on “hysterical” women was a misuse of the device.