Movie Review: “Hysteria”—Not so good vibrations

Written by Brent Holmes July 09, 2012

“Hysteria” is a hysterical comedy about the invention of the vibrator. While truth is normally stranger than fiction, “Hysteria” imagines a version of 1880’s Britain that is historically inaccurate in the extreme through the all-too-common lens of the romantic comedy. It also throws in historically misplaced feminist/socialist rhetoric in a combination somehow more uncomfortable than the subject of the movie.

Much Ado about Wanking

Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a down-on-his-luck doctor who wants to resist the generally accepted medical practices of the time, when he stumbles upon Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), who runs a successful clinic for treating women diagnosed with hysteria or a “wandering uterus”. By massaging the genital area to invoke “paroxysmal convulsions”, Dalrymple believes he has put his finger on the problem of hysteria.

A lot of the comedy of “Hysteria” comes from the doctors being totally oblivious to the fact that they are provoking orgasms in their patients. When Granville starts suffering from finger cramps, the lack of knowledge becomes even funnier. Unfortunately, that is about as far as the comedy extends, everything else about director Tanya Wexler’s film is either cheesy romantic or historically out of place.


Stroking the rom-com

Dr. Granville has his finger on a position to inherit the clinic if he marries Dr. Dalrymple’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). However, either the fact that her sister, Charlotte, is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal,  or her spitfire personality is a dead giveaway that Emily/Granville is not the central romance of the story.

This relationship sets up a really stupid binary of a pseduo risky woman/virginal girl between the two sisters. Thankfully, Emily’s involvement is finished off more tastefully than it could have been, but it doesn’t excuse that structure. It is a formula that is cutesy, meant to arouse “awws” and “well, isn’t that nice” from its audience.


Giving the finger to history

Historically the film is a mess. The film is “based on a true story” the same way  a McDonald’s cheeseburger is based off of real food. The film is nowhere close to the history of the real vibrator and has Charlotte ahead by a century. Charlotte uses feminist/socialist rhetoric that sound way out of place in a film supposedly set in the 1880’s; that way of thinking wasn’t as potent in that time. The way it’s dealt with is basically to take present day views on feminism and adapt them into a time period to present an idealized version of the past.

“Hysteria” is funny enough. While the story is bland and uninteresting, its comedic scenes work quite well. What really damages the film is the liberties it is willing to take with historical accuracy. Creating an idealized version of the past is not the way to create compelling characters or a world for them to exist in. Wexler’s film is a world of pretty costumes and clean 19th century streets; at best it’s just historical masturbation.

My Rating: 5/10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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