Movie: Hysteria (2011)

A movie about the invention of the vibrator. That sounds like a movie that will try desperately to be awkward-funny or too serious, and fail either way. Luckily, this movie is just genuinely funny while reminding us how far women have come, without stereotyping and mocking the “crazy, prudish feminist” type. It’s also, for me, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s best role (and yes, I mean including The Dark Knight). 

Dr. Mortimer Granville is an idealistic young doctor with a passion for the latest trend in medicine: germs. He wants to help people, but when no doctor will hire him due to his insistence on cleanliness, he takes a job with Dr. Robert Dalrymple to treat hysteria in women.

This is just a sweet, funny film, through and through. The costumes and setting are wonderfully Victorian. We get the contrast between the world of the private clinic, and the poor side of life in London. The women who suffer from hysteria seem to all be secretly aware of what they’re really there for, namely to get off. This creates much of the humour for the modern audience that knows all too well what the clueless, almost innocent, doctors fail to realise. Of course, it’s all fun and orgasms until someone suffering from “incurable” hysteria is sent to an asylum. The film manages to remind us of the state of women in the 1880s with surprising effectiveness without ruining the romantic comedy aspects. I was almost convince to become a suffragette myself.

Hysteria, as Dr. Dalrymple’s radical daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) points out, is a “catch all” for anything that might ail the bored upper- and middle-class women of Victorian London. Charlotte is a fiery feminist who runs a school for the poor, and her temper and zeal are taken for hysteria by the men around her. Perhaps for some viewers she is a bit over-the-top, but I found it an incredibly stirring performance. Could you imagine being one of the few people in Victorian London who understood what women are capable of? If I had been transported back in time and made to sit and do needlework all day, I would soon be hysterical myself.

Charlotte’s blunt manner is contrasted with Dr. Granville’s timidity, at least around members of the opposite sex. For a man getting a dozen women off every day, he blushes and stutters like a maiden when confronted with desires directed at him. The actor Hugh Dancy’s puppy-dog eyes is the perfect conduit for this innocence. In other areas, of course, Dr. Granville is far from timid, and here I feel is the one major flaw in the film. At the beginning, the young doctor is trying desperately to convince the medical community he works in to accept the latest science on germs. He accuses his boss of letting his patients die because he is too lazy to read. Then, because of money problems, he must take a job at the hysteria clinic of Dr. Dalrymple.

Dr. Granville doesn’t know anything about hysteria, but according to his new employer, half the women of London suffer from it! The film offers little more in the way of the science of hysteria, and I think this was a mistake. Sure, we know it’s all bollocks, but why don’t they know? Having just established Granville’s devotion to scientific inquiry, he then takes the word of a doctor he has just met, without any more research (at least none that we are privy to). At the same time he laughs at other “scientific” fields that he believes have no basis in fact. This character shift makes him seem a bit off, but whether it’s a plot hole or character flaw, he’s still charming.

With a brilliant supporting cast – Rupert Everett can never fail in a costume drama – Hysteria offers a romantic comedy with a twist. Like all romantic comedies, we know very well how it will turn out, but for once the jokes aren’t the same! No one gets accidentally punched in the face or gets drunk and makes a fool of themselves. It’s simply charming and – as they say about the vibrator – makes anyone who comes in contact with it feel good.

It’s not a movie that’ll make your year or week. It doesn’t have the feel of a really great film, but I still think this little story should have gotten much more attention than I remember it getting. In all the Norwegian newspapers at least, it got dice rolls of five and six all around, yet I barely noticed it was in theaters at all. If you feel like watching a rom-com, please pick this one instead of another “how to get a man, but then change your mind because you realise the guy who has been helping you chase the other guy is really the guy you’ve loved all along.” We’ll all be happier for it.

Dice roll: 5


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