If it seems hard to believe that a wide variety of physical and psychic complaints in women were once attributed to the uterus “migrating” around the body, then consider that that is what happens when all the knowledge of women’s bodies is generated by men. Considering how long it took male doctors just to figure out that they should wash their hands before examining a woman in labor, one wonders if things would have moved along a bit faster if the women had been allowed to chime in.
In the 1880’s England of “Hysteria,” the women are still not encouraged to chime in, and the Old Guard is still largely in control of medicine. Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), with his skepticism about leeching and his newfangled ideas about germs, finds it difficult to maintain employment. Then he meets Dr. Dalrymple, who has a highly lucrative practice providing a type of intimate massage to women with “hysteria.” Apparently the “paroxysms” brought on by the massage cause the uterus to return to its normal position. He assures Mortimer that the procedure is purely clinical, with no pleasure involved, since it is well-known that women cannot derive sexual pleasure without penile penetration. The female patients seem happy enough to go along with this story, and they never miss their appointments.
Mortimer bends to his new task mightily, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. His patients are delighted to have a handsome, young, new doctor applying the “procedure,” but Mortimer develops a repetitive-use injury of his hand. His promising new career in jeopardy, he, in a stroke of genius, conceives of a new use for his friend’s electric feather duster. The new, vibrating device induces “paroxysms” in record time, while saving wear and tear on the doctor’s hands.
Meanwhile, Dr Dalrymple has two lovely daughters. Emily (Felicity Jones) is a perfect, Victorian lady, and seems destined to marry Mortimer. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a liberated woman and a social reformer, spending her days running a community center for the poor and preaching about the rights of women. You can see where all this is going.
In fact, you can pretty much create the entire film in your own mind just from what I have told you. “Hysteria” is fun and naughty, but it really couldn’t be more predictable. The invention of the “vibrating massager” is a titillating and interesting theme, and I wish the film had explored it in a more creative and historically expansive way. The subject of women’s “hysterical” medical complaints, too, could have been more richly depicted. Still, I suppose I shouldn’t judge a film based on what it could have been. As it is, “Hysteria” is a fun, silly roast of Victorian England. With realistic expectations, it is, much like the device that is its subject matter, a guaranteed good time.
3 stars out of 5