Hysteria is Jane Austen without inhibitions. It looks like an Austen adaption but is more “racy”. Director Tanya Wexler’s debut film, based on the true story of the invention of the vibrator in the 1880’s, blends passion, scandal and medical advancement into a hilarious and informative story. At a time when leeches were used to treat diseases and women were fighting for the vote, hysteria was the diagnosis given to ladies who suffered symptoms ranging from anxiety to toothache. It was likened to a plague in Victorian London with the worst cases sent to mental asylums. The cause of this ailment – dissatisfaction in the bedchamber.
Cue handsome doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), whose treatment of these women, under the watchful eye of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), leads to the eventual invention of the vibrator. The story follows Granville as he attempts to treat hysterical housewives and ladies of the upper classes while dealing with his own feelings towards Dalrymple’s two daughters, the younger, a picture of Victorian accomplishment and the elder disowned by her father for running a settlement house for the poor, and for rushing around London on her bicycle.
The characters could almost be from the pages of an Austen novel. Granville could easily have been a poor imitation of Mr Darcy; however Wexler avoids such cod heroes by giving him an enthusiasm and intelligence which often results in witty, fast paced dialogue and humour at the expense of Victorian prudery and ignorance of women’s sexual pleasure. Granville’s foil and love interest is the outspoken feminist, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal); Granville struggles to accept to her strong views on the treatment of hysteria and women’s importance within society. Wexler treats Charlotte as the voice of truth throughout the film, entrusting the character with intellectual knowledge that challenges the perception of women within Victorian society.
It might be easy to place Hysteria in the generic category of romantic period drama, and sometimes the film is dangerously close to being simply that. However, Hysteria is a funny and enlightening portrayal of a society divided between by propriety and pleasure. Dealing with a subject matter still shrouded in secrecy today simply adds to the atmosphere of engineering a social revolution that is depicted in the film. I found myself wondering what my Grandmother would think of such a topic, but in a time where shows like Sex and The City have helped make ‘The Rabbit’ a besteller, the vibrator and its uses in Hysteria are treated in a light hearted and fun manner. Hysteria doesn’t take itself too seriously and this is what gives the film its charm. Ultimately, it blends humour with a fast paced if often crowded storyline. Many of the characters are sketched too quickly and with little insight into their lives or their importance. This is especially true of Edward (Rupert Everett). Co-creator of the vibrator, Edward is left to lounge around on a couch upholstered in tiger fur. The talent of a seasoned actor such as Everett seems wasted on a character whose only input is the occasional witty oneliner.
Hysteria has the elegant balls, the handsome young men, and the costume of an Austen adaptation; it adds reformed prostitutes, stiff hands, and women throwing punches to produce a light hearted and fun way of telling an already stimulating story. It is worth staying for the end credits to see the advancement of the vibrator, from the bulky contraption invented in Hysteria to today’s more colourful models.