Film Score: Gast Waltzing Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce and Rupert Everett
Hysteria is hysterical. It’s based on the true story of a Dr. Dalrymple who specialized in treating “hysteria” in woman. His treatment was to stimulate their genitals to achieve “paroxysmal convulsions” which no one would really admit were orgasms. Graduating medical student Mortimer Granville, meanwhile, is looking for a job and the only one he can get is with Dalrymple. After his initial shock at the fundamentals of his practice, not to mention the overflowing waiting room, he signs on and becomes an expert in the art of paroxysmal convulsions. The only problem is that he gets carpel tunnel syndrome in his right hand from the effort. What to do? Fortunately his roommate, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, has been experimenting with electricity and his electric feather duster appears to be just the thing, bringing about the invention of the electric vibrator.
Jonathan Pryce, whose singular performance in Brazil made him a star, is wonderful as Dalrymple. A proper British doctor, he has no qualms about his specialized practice. Hugh Dancy plays Granville, chafing at the inability of the medical establishment to recognize germ theory and yet able to do nothing about it mired in a practice that does little more than service women’s sexual needs. But he carries on, to the point where Price plans to leave his practice to Dancy, assuming he marries his daughter. Felicity Jones is the quiet, unassuming daughter that he proposes to, while Pryce’s other daughter is the headstrong Maggie Gyllenhaal who runs a clinic for the poor that is the shame of the medical establishment, her father included. While Dancy goes about perfecting the vibrator, Gyllenhaal continues to goad him into working at her clinic in order to make full use of his medical skills and to be a genuine benefit to society.
It is clear that Dancy is torn between the security of Pryce’s practice and the opportunity to really test the germ theory where it will do some good. At the same time he is torn between Gyllenhaal’s infectious enthusiasm and the genteel, orderly life that Jones offers. The ending of the film, while incredibly informative, is also chilling in its demonstration of how little power women had over their own bodies well into the twentieth century, a fact that is still reflected in the panels of men who presume to dictate their choices even today. Director Tanya Wexler has directed only three films, and while none broke box office records they are all solid productions. This one benefits from superb casting and a quirky style that is perfectly suited to the subject matter. And the deadly serious nature with which all the characters take the humorous situations makes the film all the more enjoyable. Hysteria is definitely uneven at times, but certainly an entertaining look at a novel subject.