“Hysteria,” Tanya Wexler’s cheeky period comedy, is about the creation of the ever-popular sex toy known as the vibrator. Seriously. Yeah, I know right? Even the movie itself seems a little surprised by its topic. The place is London in the 19th century; back when the majority of people were too naïve to accept advances in the medical and science fields. Replace old ratty bandages with fresh ones in order to prevent bacterial spread? Please! However, an epidemic has broken out, affecting practically every woman in London. They’re suffering from Hysteria, which basically means, to avoid complex medical jargon, an overactive uterus. Because their husbands go out and work all day, and since having sexual relations back in those days was a scarce thing among rich couples, woman need a way to unwind. The cure: Go and get “relieved” by a doctor once or twice a week. Te-he.
The movie revolves round young Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) a doctor (and future creator of the vibrator) who has just been fired from a hospital. In no time he runs into Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price) who runs a clinic that specializes in hysteria curing. At this stage in the picture, the vibrator hasn’t been invented yet so the relieving has to be done by hand. And since Dalrymple only has two hands he needs some assistance. And that’s where Mortimer comes in. For a while everything is going well, turns out he’s a natural. But after a few weeks, as more and more woman become hysteric he gets carpal tunnel. Not enough hands in the world. And that’s where the vibrator comes in. He gets the idea from his inventor friend Edmund St. John-Smythe’s (Rupert Everett) electric duster.
This is a funny and potentially racy subject for movie…especially for a British period piece. And Wexler and her writers Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer were wise to make it a comedy. For a while at least it has some fun with itself (no pun intended). The characters spouting innuendos such as: “Don’t worry, I’m leaving you in very good hands.”
The picture is skillfully made, the production design by Sophie Becker, the costume design by Nic Ede and the set decoration by Charlotte Watts are all appropriate for a movie like this. Nothing in the composition of each scene looks out of place and all of the actors are fine, especially Everett who seems to be having a jolly good time with his role.
Though, as it usually goes with British costume movies, “Hysteria” is rather stiff and tame and ultimately bland, which is disappointing considering the subject matter. There are moments here and there that show some energy, like with those innuendos. When the picture is self aware of its giggly subject it’s the strongest but overall it just needed more spice.
On top of that, since the vibrator and its curing of hysteria doesn’t fill an entire movie, the two Dyers had to put a romantic plot front and center in the script, involving Mortimer and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Robert’s wild daughter who runs a trade house. Again, the actors do what they can but the romance isn’t nearly as interesting or funny as the stuff with the vibrator and eventually the movie builds up to a climax involving the “convincing court room speech” cliché followed by a really corny ending.
All in all the best part in the movie comes at the end during the credits when we get to see pictures of the various vibrator models over the years. One particular model from the seventies is the size and has the look of a sand blaster. To save time and money it might just be easier to not see “Hysteria” and just read up about vibrators, because it never lives up to its amusing subject.