The Brits Bring Sexy Back in Hysteria

When you think about Victorian period films, rarely does the mind consider film that is outside of the realm of Merchant Ivory dramas or films that distill prudish Victorian values. With the exception of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and a few others, comedic devices such as double entendre, sexual innuendo, and god forbid, slapstick are not commonly used tools that advance the plot. Tanya Wexler’s romantic comedy Hysteria employs all those devices, and then some.

Set in 1880, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) in an attempt to forward his medical career leaves his position at one of London’s state clinics for a position in private practice with the esteemed Dr.  Robert Dalrymble (Jonathan Pryce), London’s leading specialist in women’s medicine. Dr. Dalrymble’s claim to fame is treating women who suffer from hysteria, a disease state characterized by irritability, melancholy, frigidity, and nymphomania. Victorian medical science believed that hysteria results from a disorder of the uterus, of which Dalrymble’s practice specializes in relieving the symptoms of hysteria by massaging the womb. Into this practice, Mortimer Granville brings his medical acumen and somewhat compassionate spirit.

Add to the plot Dalrymble’s polar opposite daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones), the paragon of Victorian virtue and intelligence and black sheep Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has chosen to waste her aristocratic privilege and position championing the rights of women and the disenfranchised, and Granville’s well-heeled, dilettante, inventor friend John Smythe (Rupert Everett) and Wexler has concocted a tale that delves not only into the Victorian perceptions about love, sex, and familial duty, but also the political issues of class, gender rights, sexual freedom, and government responsibility. Ideals we still struggle with day, particularly in this election year.

Wexler ingeniously mixes comedy, romance and Victorian morays in this story that is ultimately about the invention of the first vibrator. As Charlotte Dalrymble, Maggie Gyllenhaal brings charm and a feisty determination that is a welcome change from some of the pathological, outsider roles she has portrayed in the past. Though her British accent is a bit off, Gyllenhaal does capture the essence of a privileged English woman who is caught between the worlds of Victorian duty and rectitude and her own passion for human rights. And though Gyllenhaal has never been seen as a great beauty, in this role the combination of Victorian elegance, passion, Gyllenhaal’s convincing performance causes her unique beauty to shine through in a way, perhaps, no seen before.

As Dr. Mortimer Granville, Hugh Dancy struggles with the emerging world of modern medicine and the stuffy, fading world of Victorian sensibility. This juxtaposition is also manifested in his sensible romance with Emily, while secretly attracted to the wild, impulsive, evolved Charlotte. Dancy navigates these polar opposites brilliantly without losing his character’s charm or sense of duty.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

Based on the true story of the first battery-operated vibrator, at its core, Hysteria, though titillating at times, is never vulgar. And Wexler has found a way to insert witty charm, sexual entendre, and humor into a subject matter that could be strained and pedestrian.

Who knew the story of the first British vibrator could be so stimulating.  Maybe now we Yanks will look at sex and the Brits in a different light!!

—William S. Gooch

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