The Little Engine That Could: Hysteria Stimulates the Senses

3 The Little Engine That Could: <em>Hysteria</em> Stimulates the SensesHysteria is Jane Austen with a vibrator—a movie about the invention of the scandalous electro-mechanical device that changed women’s lives forever. Set in the Victorian era of scientific ignorance and cultural Puritanism, its style is still more Restoration comedy than Victorian decadence—postcolonial feminism with a temperament more Austen than Bronte. Nothing to snicker about here. Considering the subject, ripe with titillating possibilities, it’s surprisingly about as sexy as a week-old meat loaf. Tastefully directed by Tanya Wexler, it is a total joy from start to finish.

At the pinnacle of Victorian prudishness, when ignorance and disease were the order of the day, rusty surgical tools were prevalent and bleeding with leeches was a popular treatment for everything from gout to gonorrhea. Hysteria was the term used to diagnose nervous conditions in women suffering every sexual disorder from frigidity to an overstimulated uterus. This is the true story of Dr. Mortimer Granville (played by the charming Hugh Dancy), a progressive doctor devoted to advancing the suppressed sexual pleasure of women, enriched with witty dialogue, elegant production values and an intelligent screenplay that expands the historical canvas of life in London to include class prejudices as well as social hypocrisy. Disillusioned with the medieval practice of medicine in an England of chaos (this is also the year of Jack the Ripper and the Elephant Man), Dr. Granville was ready to denounce his Hippocratic Oath when he found employment as an assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), an elderly “specialist” experimenting with the treatment of housewives with sex problems and a foremost expert on the subject of “hysteria.” Eschewing warm baths and horseback riding in favor of vaginal massages, his business was already booming. But when the younger, more appealing Dr. Granville develops his own brand of manual finger manipulation, eager patients filled the waiting room with renewed reason to come out of their corsets. What nobody ever thought possible was the mysterious fact that all of these stressed-out women were experiencing something nobody had considered: They were just plain horny!

The result was heaven for the patients, but hell on the doctor’s hand. Suffering from severe cramps and nerve spasms that required the use of a cast, the good doctor turned to a goofy prissy-pot friend with a passion for gadgets named Edmund St. John-Smythe (a hilarious Rupert Everett) to invent a motor-driven stimulus that could be applied to a woman’s lower anatomy without overtaxing the wrist and fingers. The result was nothing short of a revolution. In the plot trajectory, Dr. Granville also attracted the attention of the elderly Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters: placid, proper, obedient and favorite daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and headstrong, outspoken Charlotte (a marvelous Maggie Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who disgraces her father by running a settlement house for the impoverished prostitutes of the East End slums. There is evidence galore that the vibrator contributed to the sexual independence of enlightened free-thinkers in the future of liberated women everywhere. Muffled praise of the vibrator eventually gave way to cries of “Heigh-ho, the dildo!”

Instead of provocative prurience, Hysteria brims over with humor and sweetness. Far from dogmatic, it is agreeable, lyrical, carefully scripted and acted with great feeling by an exemplary cast. The film is also an eye-opening footnote to history as it depicts a time so backward that women with libido challenges were declared insane and sent to asylums or punished by court-ordered hysterectomies. Don’t miss the closing credits, displaying a wonderful collection of museum-quality illustrations of changing styles and designs from the mid-19th century to the ugly plastic drug store models of today. The liberating vibrator may have started out in Victorian England, but eventually made it to the Sears Roebuck catalogue and, in the final and funniest scene in the picture, even Buckingham Palace. A clever, quick-witted, informed and terrific movie!

rreed@observer.com

HYSTERIA
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer
Directed by Tanya Wexler
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce