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Hysteria – Film Review

As bizarre as this might sound, the word Hysteria was at one time the commonly accepted medical diagnosis given to women who exhibited signs of nervousness, faintness, insomnia, illogical reasoning, and anything else that a male doctor could not fully understand.

The real answer, of course, was the feeling of sexual dissatisfaction and everything that stemmed from it.  If only the book ‘Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus’ was published during Victorian times, certain thoughts and feelings of women, not fully understood by men, might have made all the difference to the medical profession.

 Director Tanya Wexler has taken this theme and made a highly entertaining romantic comedy of Victorian England revolving around the events that lead to the invention of … (and –  pause while I nervously clear my throat)… the vibrator.

Jonathan Pryce plays Dr. Robert Dalrymple, a respected London doctor who believes that when it comes to the unexplained phenomena of hysteria, “Fifty percent of the women in London have it.”  He hires a young assistant doctor, Dr. Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy, to help in his revolutionary methods of dealing with the problem of hysteria, or as he puts it, a female’s “…Overactive uterus.”  As one upper-class female patient states in the doctor’s waiting room, “I’m far too old for those kinds of feelings, but… there you are.”

The cure, or at least the temporary cure until another feeling of hysteria returned, was a clinical massage of the pelvis by the doctor.  “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time,” he tells his first patient.  The thought that anything sexual was happening during the treatment never seems to occur to the men.  Once the young doctor takes over the massaging duties, the female patient list at the practice suddenly grows longer.  As the doctor’s in-house maid states to her employer, “You’re going to need a bigger appointment book.”

When the young doctor shows signs of carpal tunnel syndrome from all the massaging – not that Victorian doctors had such a definition for a painful wrist back then – he turns to his wealthy friend, Rupert Everett, who happens to be making the world’s first electronic feather duster.  With a slight modification, not to mention the removal of the feathers, the appliance suddenly becomes useful in the treatment of female hysteria to amazing results.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose London accent is practically faultless – she sounds as if she took inflection lessons from Emma Thompson – plays one of the elderly doctor’s two daughters.  She’s the feisty, socially active one who has chosen a life of helping the poor and underprivileged.  Emily, the other daughter, played by Felicity Jones, is quite the opposite; a genteel young lady of London who lives in the shadow of her father.  The older doctor would like the younger doctor to not only take over his practice some day but to also marry Emily, though it’s no surprise to anyone, particularly the audience, that it’s the radical Gyllenhaal who will eventually capture the young doctor’s heart.

It may sound like a controversial subject – which, of course, it is – yet the film has an amazingly light tone throughout and is often very funny with sharp dialog and good performances from all.  It’s also beautifully framed and shot.  And if anyone should doubt the historical accuracy of the story, look the details up.  I did.  Despite its humorous tone, the names of the characters, the settings and the events are all for real.

Amazingly, during the end credits we learn that in a male dominated medical industry the medical diagnosis of Hysteria did not officially end until as late as 1952!  Let’s be honest, even today, we men are still generally clueless when it comes to the thoughts, feelings and needs of women.

 MPAA Rating:  R        Length:  95 minutes      Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)


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