Victorian Vibes 

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Hysteria
Directed by Tanya Wexler

Hysteria has an appealing idea for depicting the invention of the vibrator: it tries to turn medical and sociological history into a light romantic comedy. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), fired from numerous hospitals in Victorian London, gets a job in the office of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in treatment of female hysteria (a "catch-all," as one character refers to it, for virtually any female-related troubles). The treatment involves the women laying back as the doctor "massages" a sensitive area until tension is released; after some time on the job, Mortimer's hand cramps lead to advances in the automation of this, uh, service.

As for the romcom angle: we're spared a meet-cute on the treatment table; Dr. Dalrymple's daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) captures Mortimer's eye for being the very picture of proper, ladylike elegance, while he's flummoxed by Emily's black-sheep sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who spurns upper-class society by working to feed, heal, and otherwise help the poor, disdaining her father's practice. Charlotte gives voice to the film's central thesis: Upper-class Victorians operate with such pathological denial of female sexuality that manual stimulation must be reinvented as routine medical treatment. That is, at least for those who can afford it; for poorer women, a diagnosis of hysteria can mean institutionalization. No prizes for guessing which outspoken character may have to defend herself against such charges in a courtroom late in the film. (Not wanting to deny her an inch of progressiveness, though, the film makers sure to tack on Charlotte's approval of the vibrator as a benign, even helpful device, after spending much of the film questioning its medical worth.)

Two major problems arise from the film's enlightened-yet-lighthearted take on this material. First, each character's worth is determined principally by their ability to match our contemporary values. This creates a too-simple hierarchy: Charlotte first, because of the uncomplicated, free-spirited pluck that renders her, if not a straight-up anachronism, then a suspiciously easy rooting interest; then Mortimer, who shares enlightened understanding of medical science but maintains his stuffy sexism, at least initially; then everyone else in the upper class. This includes a parade of starchy, straw-filled authority figures who say things like "germ theory is poppycock," and bristle over the heroine's impertinence; in movies set a hundred years later, they will be pushed into swimming pools or giant cakes.

Which brings us to a second major concern: Hysteria isn't very funny. The comedy, courtesy of Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is tweedy and dorky: lots of double entendres about patients being "in good hands" and orgasms that roll eyes both on screen (so the audience can understand that they're happening) and off (from me, in my seat, sensing the filmmakers' tittering). Gyllenhaal and Dancy have some mild, pleasant banter, and while I'm ashamed to say I didn't recognize Rupert Everett as Dancy's droll tinkerer of a friend, besotted by his brand-new telephone (get it?! The telephone! It's still new!), I did enjoy his low-key weirdness. But most of the humor aims lower, like the running gag of a prostitute-turned-maid (Sheridan Smith) who's always randy—because, you know, most nineteenth-century prostitutes were in that game out of pure devotion to sex.

This makes Charlotte's cries ("There is a social revolution afoot!") not only on-the-nose, but a touch hypocritical; the movie so orients itself to a current perspective that it allows no real sense of revolution. In its own quasi-enlightened way, Hysteria is really quite retro, crafted like an old-fashioned message movie. By the end, the development of the vibrator becomes more of a half-fulfilled subplot, serving the movie's radical message that Victorian London really was quite sexist.

Opens May 18

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