BY Willard Manus
If HYSTERIA were a song and not a movie, its lyrics might go something like this: "Oooh oooh oooh, what a little friction can do!" The friction in question was the medical answer to the purported problem of hysteria afflicting women in Victorian Britain. These women were sexually repressed or frustrated,but the prudishness of the times did not allow for such frank talk; instead female unhappiness, frigidity and depression were blamed on a "disorder of the uterus." Horniness became a clinical, not a human, concern.
In HYSTERIA, the quirky romantic comedy directed by Tanya Wexler, we meet Dr. Robert Dalyrimple (Jonathan Pryce), London's leading specialist in women's medicine. Based on a true character, Dalyrimple treats hysteria by "relieving tensions in the womb," as he pedantically explains to a young doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is thinking of joining his practice. The treatment is quite simple: the patient lies on her back and allows the doctor to finger her until she manages to have an orgasm (known then as a "paroxysm").
Granville, like the hero of that other British masturbation movie, Irina Palm, proves to be so good at his new job that Dalyrimple's waiting room is soon filled with wealthy women desperately seeking paroxysms. The practice becomes so prosperous that Dalyrimple not only encourages Granville to become a partner but to marry his demure young daughter Emily (Felicity Jones)--"the epitome of English virtue and womanliness."
Problem is, Granville's over-used right hand suddenly begins to cramp up at work; switching to his left proves an unsatisfactory solution. Patients complain, Granville not only loses his job but his fiancee as well, much to the delight of the black sheep of the Dalyrimple family, Emily's older sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall). A feisty fighter for social causes, she has turned her back on wealth and privilege to run a settlement house for destitute women and children. She has nothing but contempt for her father's medical practice and the way he feed off the sexual hangups of his affluent clientele.
Granville turns to his rich, oddball friend, Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett) for help. Smythe, a dilettante inventor (his home-made telephone is one of the first of its kind), has been tinkering with an electric feather-duster that inspires a Eureka moment for young Granville. After a few adjustments here, a bit of experimentation there, the feather duster becomes the world's first vibrator.
Marketed as "Granville's Hammer," the vibrator eventually shed its medical trappings and became the most popular sex toy of all time (as we learn in a post-script to HYSTERIA).
Director Wexler and her writers, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer (working from a story by Howard Gensler), have delved into the little-known history of the vibrator and turned their findings into an odd but engaging film that has a lot to say about women's sexuality and the way it has been feared, repressed and exploited down through the ages.
HYSTERIA also celebrates those, like Charlotte, who have fought against the odds to lift people up out of poverty and enable them to lead healthy, normal lives. Charlotte's progressive spirit infuses much of HYSTERIA and gives it its muscle and fire.