Sometimes a filmmaker’s lofty ideas get in the way of execution. Such is the case with Hysteria, a flick that just scratches the surface of the never-ending fun and/or pathos that should be derived from such a touchy subject matter. Director Tanya Wexler tells the story of the invention of the first vibrator with quaintness and cuteness instead of the raging satire it so richly deserves. The opening prologue of “based on a true story” is followed by the smug … “really,” leading us to believe that this might be a flick with wit and vigor. What we get instead is a romantic comedy period piece with the vibrator saga as backdrop. Personally, I feel the Victorian period is patently boring unless a werewolf gnaws on someone’s neck.
The backstory of the first female massage gizmo is that women were once diagnosed with “hysteria” and bad thoughts attributed to a lack of love or attention. The specialist in charge of treatment, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price) concludes that hysteria stems from an overactive uterus. He employs a young intern, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), to help with the overload of clientele. Granville’s success in manually stimulating patients results in him getting a sore wrist and cramped fingers. Working with his wacky inventor friend (Rupert Everett), Granville comes up with the first electronic massage unit, or as we today know it, vibrator. Needless to say the device scores a bull’s eye.
We also follow Granville’s medical career at the orgasm clinic and his relationship with two sisters vying for his attention. We know exactly where this movie is going as Mortimer is first smitten by the more conventional daughter Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones) then the feisty rebellious Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who operates a shelter on the wrong side of town. Let’s see, in true formulaic movie convention, will he go for the safe choice, or take a chance on love? And what about all that darn vaginal stimulation —what’s to become of the masses of unsatisfied hysterical women?
The portrayal of orgasms varies in degree of silliness (none believable in the least) avoiding any form of eroticism. The vibrator stimulation scenes are beyond stupid—as if someone would really sing opera in the saddle.
Feeling like it’s direct from the Women’s Channel, there are jabs at chauvinism while upholding women’s rights. In the end, though, it’s all about the phony fairy tale idea of doing the right thing and falling in love with the right person. The sub-plot of Maggie running a shelter to tug at our hearts strings is just another phony manipulation of Rom-Com formula writing. In the hands of a more seasoned filmmaker, Hysteria could have hit all its high notes and delivered a very intriguing story. Instead we get a glossed over treatment of the fact that, in its day, hysterectomy was essentially a woman’s sexual lobotomy.
Sadly Wexler’s vision for Hysteria is just a tepid telling of what could be a hilarious or deeply serious film. This movie is all touchy feely (pun intended), but in all the wrong places.
Starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett
Directed by Tanya Wexler