I recently read an article about how this insane Fift Shades of Grey phenomenon has been a massive boon for the sex-toy industry. As if it’s already not icky enough hearing about so many dissatisfied soccer moms at book clubs reading their bondage-themed Twilight fan fiction, now I have the indelible mental image of them all buying the accessories, too. Oh, well, whatever gets you through the night and is good for the economy, I guess.
I doubt similar sales statistics will be spurred on by Hysteria, a perfectly dreadful farce about how the invention of the vibrator rocked Victorian England. Well, if the movie had been any good it would have been about that. Instead we’re stuck with a lame love triangle, suffragist speechifying and a wee bit of painfully coy tittering regarding ladies’ private parts.
Director Tanya Wexler tips her hand within the opening moments, opting for a shot of a hoity-toity doctor stepping in a giant mound of horse poop. I assume this is supposed to be funny because it’s 1880 and horses used to poop in the road back then. The good doctor makes his way into a ward where patients are dressed with rotten, reused bandages and routinely bled with leeches.
There’s much consternation from the doctor’s uptight assistant, played with a good deal of indignation and not the slightest bit of charm by Hugh Dancy, one of those blandly handsome and undistinguished British actors currently getting the stuffy-Brit roles Colin Firth used to be stuck with back in the 1990s. Dancy plays Dr. Mortimer Granville, a dedicated physician who seems to be having difficulty with employers who refuse to believe that germs actually exist, and thus remain committed to medieval medical techniques. He’s eventually dismissed from this rot-infested abattoir that calls itself a hospital, and we’re supposed to have a good laugh because on the way out he steps in the same pile of horse poop as his antagonist. (Any movie in which more than one character steps in shit for comedic purposes during the first reel is automatically worthless. I call this “the Pret-à-Porter rule.”)
So now that we’ve established the sophisticated level of Hysteria’s sensibility, let’s move on to the main plot, when Granville takes up a job with the renowned Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce,) who treats overcrowded waiting rooms every day full of classy ladies suffering from a made-up malady called hysteria, hence the title. It’s attributed to an overactive uterus, and these lonely women must be treated with digital manipulation of their feminine regions (here called “vulvic massage”) until they reach “paroxysm.” The addition of a strikingly handsome practitioner means business is quickly booming for our dear, devoted physicians.
There’s obviously very extremely rich material for satire here, with old ladies lining up with medicinal excuses to get off. (One can only wonder what John Waters might have done with the story!) Instead, Wexler plays it depressingly straight, with a few cheap chortles aimed at the peanut gallery. It’s the kind of vibrator movie you can take your parents to see.
When the in-demand Granville starts suffering carpal-tunnel syndrome, he happens upon an electric feather-duster invented by his loutish best friend (an unrecognizable, but extremely amusing Rupert Everett. Whatever happened to him?) Faster than you can say eureka, they’re pressing the contraption against a prostitute’s nether regions causing multiple “paroxysms” and their clinical trials yield a spectacularly unfunny knockoff of Madeline Kahn’s “Mysteries Of Life” moment in Young Frankenstein.
Alas, the revolution of female self-pleasure quickly takes a backseat to the trials and tribulations of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s singularly unpleasant women’s-rights activist, who just so happens to be daughter to Pryce’s Dalrymple. Granville is already engaged to her dim-bulb kid sister (played by Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones, at whom we are encouraged to snicker because she believes phrenology is a science.) Gyllenhaal is one of those anachronistic characters often dropped into period pieces to flatter modern audiences, spouting contemporary sentiments and insisting at every turn that a change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.
Nobody even mentions the vibrator for chunks of the picture’s running time, because instead we’re stuck with trumped-up criminal charges and a miserable courtroom slog during which the future of Gyllenhaal’s women’s shelter is at stake. The suspense here is whether Dancy’s priggish Dr. Granville will choose the mewling, obedient fiancée or her brash, spitfire sister.
I don’t know if I am allowed to tell you the answer. I’m still just wondering what any of this is supposed to have to do with orgasms.
Hysteria pretends to be naughty in a most tedious and cowardly fashion. And with regard to tumultuously changing social mores, there’s nothing in this picture nearly as shocking as last night’s dinner conversation, when my 65-year-old mother asked me: “Have you read this Fifty Shades Of Grey? It’s all they were talking about last week on Ellen.”
Director: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce