Despite numerous unfortunate clichés in both character and plot, almost all of which may be put down to this film’s being a romantic comedy (a genre that Her Ladyship usually abhors), Hysteria is a rather sweet film that somehow, inexplicably, makes you forgive its many faults and enjoy yourself tremendously in the process. Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer and Howard Gensler somehow manage to turn the invention of the first ever vibrator into a social commentary on West End and East End life in late Victorian London; to address the issue of the repression of women (sexual and otherwise) in the Victorian era; to give us a charming if not-particularly-original love story; and to afford us the opportunity, every now and again, to laugh our heads off at Rupert Everett as he fools around with wires, causes small explosions and reclines on a chaise longue pretending to be Oscar Wilde.
Doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has just got himself kicked out of his fifth or sixth hospital for the heinous crime of insisting that germs exist. Desperate for money, and disillusioned with a profession that seems to want to cure people without actually helping them, he determines to find himself an utterly mundane position that won’t lead to any further head-butting with his superiors. Such a position is soon forthcoming at the practice of Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), a doctor who specialises in hysteria; hysteria being a polite term for female sexual frustration. Believed by doctors to be an actual disease linked to movements of the uterus (till 1952, Her Ladyship wishes to add); the angry and occasionally insane behaviour that being horny can cause were considered so offensive to the Victorian mentality and so contrary to its conception of womanliness that many of these poor women ended up institutionalised with hysterectomies forcibly performed on them, supposedly for their own good. So, to abate the symptoms of hysteria, a disease that is suffered by ‘half the women in London,’ Doctor Dalrymple spends most of his time bringing women to climax in his consulting rooms with a variety of oils and balms, all the while believing, quite sincerely, that he is performing a perfectly serious medical procedure.
Needless to say that Mortimer turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing, and while he is thrilled to have played so great a part in swelling patient numbers, he is soon beset by constant panic about the blinding pain in his hand; the result, no doubt, of stimulating one clitoris too many. Enter the need for a useful machine, and enter two separate ideals of womanliness to add to poor Mortimer’s troubles: Emily and Charlotte, Doctor Dalrymple’s daughters.
Emily (Felicity Jones) is, rather predictably, the object of Mortimer’s affections from the very start. Cut from the same cloth as Lucy in Dracula and Laura in The Woman in White, she is the ideal Victorian woman: sweetness, gentleness and submissiveness incarnate. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, is a crass suffragist and philanthropist whose ladylike manners have not survived running a settlement house for the poor in the East End. She’s passionate, tomboyish and a bit of a badass, and takes an instant dislike to Mortimer, whom she sees as joining her father in ministering to the needs of spoilt upper-class housewives who suffer from a bogus condition that never seems to affect the women she works with because they’re too busy worrying where their next meal is going to come from. Mortimer and Charlotte predictably spend most of the film driving each other to distraction in a tidal wave of English wit and stringently-denied sexual attraction, but find common ground in their belief that good health and good doctors should be freely available to all those who need it, regardless of social class or occupation. It just takes Mortimer rather longer than Charlotte to realise that he believes this at all.
The two sisters that are polar opposites; one overly-virtuous, if likeable, the other wildly intelligent and outspoken, is a feature of the romantic comedy genre that has been done to death and could very well have been spared in this film; poor Emily serving little purpose beyond getting in the way despite a half-hearted attempt to give her a mind of her own in the film’s final act; Charlotte clearly intended to resemble every spirited nineteenth-century heroine from Elizabeth Bennett to Marian Halcombe, but so caught up in this business of resembling that she sometimes forgets to be herself. Nevertheless, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is charming and extremely raw, and she convinces completely as a woman who has no time for one way of life when she has understood how much can be accomplished in another. Her interactions with the residents of her settlement house are disarming and genuine, and she possesses a rare ability to talk to the people she interacts with without seeming to patronise or to distance herself from them on the grounds of her class. She works in frequently-hilarious counterpoint to Mortimer’s buttoned-up and stiff upper lip Victorian-ness, and the sincerity with which she elicits loans and other financial aid to help the poor is both disarming and charismatic.
The sexual repression of women is quite rightly responsible for a great deal of the darkness and misery that one finds in Victorian literature or in books and films set in the era, and making a romantic comedy with this issue at its heart must have been a challenging idea to bring to fruition. In this regard, Hysteria succeeds very well, and despite the myriad faults and predictability that result from the film’s genre; it is, at the end of the day, a period drama that is extremely funny, touching and just good, clean fun.