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Review: Hysteria

September 21, 2012

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

As the saying goes, you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar. Consider Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria as short for ‘hysterical’ in its deeply entertaining comedy of the invention of the vibrator (yes, it was totally a treatment to quiet down delinquent women). But beyond the nitty gritty of treating horniness with a spoon and fork, there are some deeply political issues discussed about women having control over their own bodies that are neatly addressed without getting too carried away.

Set in Victorian England, we follow an eager doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) desperate for a breakthrough in medical science. He ends up treating bored housewives for ‘hysteria,’ a condition in which women in the 20th century have renamed ‘sexual frustration.’ Hey, if we had a charming young man massage us each week with rosemary oils we’d get those nagging thoughts of female independence out of our heads. Or at the least, sedate it to a tolerable degree for an hour or so.

What really hooks me in is the variety of female personalities expressed in the film. Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her sister Emily (Felicity Jones) are direct opposites, one being the perfect example of a woman suffering from a near incurable case of hysteria, the other being the perfect example of what every man would consider the most tolerable wife, mother and daughter to be. Molly (Sheridan Smith) steals the show as an ex-prostitute-now-turned-housemaid that dances around the new development of a feather-duster. Even Mrs. Parsons (Georgie Glen) gives us quite a show as possibly the oldest lady in history to perform an orgasm on the big screen. You might want to take your hat off, this gets a little steamy!

The invention of the vibrator comes along when doctor Granville struggles to accommodate hundreds of women with his poor overused right hand (the left hand just doesn’t suffice). The discovery comes along with a complete 180 change in attitude with women taking over their own pleasures as the vibrator becomes portable for personal use. We don’t quite get there in the film, but I know we’re all thinking this could have gone just a bit further to lightly brush on the idea that men might be getting their position replaced in the bedroom. But I guess it’s enough to see a drastic movement when hysteria becomes discredited as a mental illness. Let’s not speak anymore of this.

Amanda Chen.

Hysteria is released today in the UK.