Midway through this Victorian-era comedy about the invention of the electric vibrator I felt the urge to grab the electronic device that was vibrating in my pants, my iPhone.

View Comments
Movie Review: Hysteria
Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) and Emily (Felicity Jones) in a scene from Hysteria. Picture: Hopscotch/ Entertainment One.



Midway through this Victorian-era comedy about the invention of the electric vibrator I felt the urge to grab the electronic device that was vibrating in my pants, my iPhone.

It wasn't self-pleasuring that I was after (although the vibrator has now been replaced by an array of digital-era instruments, we learn in Hysteria, that give as much satisfaction as the machine that was invented in the 19th century).

Rather, I was desperate to find out if there were any facts informing the fiction I was watching - if, for example, women were lining up in Harley Street to have their genitals massaged by a GP to give them relief from an array of physical and mental disorders.

I resisted Wikipedia until after the movie and was surprised to learn Hysteria is grounded in reality - perhaps not the scene in which a horsey society ma'am shouts "Tally ho!" while her doctor manually manipulates her privates, or the Italian diva bursting into an aria from La Traviata at the moment of "paroxysm" but, in general, pretty accurate.

That I suspected that the filmmakers were yanking my chain is both its strength - the story is indeed amazing - and the weakness of an otherwise enjoyable romp that lifts the skirts, quite literally, on a notoriously corseted era, revealing that Victorians were a little more adventurous than we'd thought.

Instead of simply presenting the extraordinary situation of doctors masturbating women to cure them of era-specific maladies, American director Tanya Wexler cranks things up to Benny Hill levels, with leering, eye-rolling jokes at every turn. A little Victorian restraint would have made for bigger laughs and gasps.

After losing his job for suggesting that leeches are not the stuff of medical science, Hugh Dancy's young sawbones Mortimer Granville secures a position in the prestigious practice of Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who is desperately in need of an extra hand (pun very much intended) in servicing the women who each day crowd his waiting room.

Mortimer, being younger, better looking, most crucial, and in possession of a stronger wrist, becomes an instant hit with the London ladies, and soon the practice is doing a roaring trade and, indeed, some of the women do roar mightily at the moment of release.

The only problem is that Mortimer eventually suffers from repetitive strain injury. The solution is presented by his pal, wealthy dilettante inventor Edmund St John-Smythe (Rupert Everett in fine campy form), who retools his electric feather duster into the world's first vibrator.

You can understand a lack of subtlety in scenes in which women get their rocks off using a machine that looks like it should be manufacturing armaments instead of giving pleasure. However, it's a pity that Wexler did not keep a lid on the romantic sub-plot involving Dancy's Mortimer and Dalrymple's two daughters, a respectful scholar (Felicity Jones) and a feisty suffragette dedicated to helping the poor, played with the usual smarts and vivacity by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

This could have worked a treat but again Wexler uses the pile-driver approach to storytelling, hammering home every point about patriarchal repression and the failure of men to satisfy women. Oddly, the film also suggests that the electric vibrator and not increased intimacy is the solution to their problems.

They also create a situation in which Gyllenhaal's Maggie's run-in with the law over unpaid debts threatens to have her declared criminally insane and given a hysterectomy. Women were ill-treated in Victorian times but I doubt the daughter of an eminent Harley Street doctor would face the punishments of a Dickensian trollop.

Apparently the electric vibrator was the fifth domestic instrument to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron (thank you, Wikipedia).

That's funnier than the loudest paroxysm.

Hysteria is now screening.