While Tanya Wexler's new film Hysteria is at times a LOL-hysterical romantic comedy, it also skillfully navigates important issues about class and medical practices in the 1880s, and takes a good look at women's rights in general.
The story takes place in London and has an interesting ensemble cast of characters that range from a former prostitute to a very wealthy and quirky inventor on up to sundry members of the elite British social class. Nestled in the midst of this is the earnest, handsome and likable Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who is, in fact, really, credited with "the invention of the first vibrator in the name of medical science." After being dismissed from several hospitals and following a tireless search for employment, Dr. Granville is finally employed by a private physician -- Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). His task is to assist the good doctor in his practice, which treats upper-class women suffering from hysteria. I remembered reading an article many years ago about the evolution of this area of medical science in the New York Times, and was curious as to how such a story would be "handled" -- pardon the pun.
As it turns out Dr. Dalrymple has two beautiful daughters (played by Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal) who represent very different perspectives on womanhood in this prim and proper Victorian era. One who embodies the conformity and conventions of the times and the other, well, therein lies the drama. The film has a sharp wit, is charming in that British way, and plays gleefully with what Clement Greenberg refers to as Kitsch: "that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc." "The precondition," says Greenberg, "for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends." Wexler uses all of this to our advantage as she glides comfortably and seamlessly between scenes where women are being "massaged for therapeutic outcomes" to discussions of the suffrage movement.
Paroxysms, phrenology, ducks, Molly (Sheridan Smith) and Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) contribute to the hilarity while serious conversations about a woman's rights over her own body take place. As the story unfolds we understand the more salient matters surrounding the fun facts about the invention of what we now call the vibrator. As our laughter subsides we are left with an important timeline of women's rights, notions about living true to one's real identity, one man's destiny and its fulfillment, and even an exploration of what factors determine true love. This is informed and intelligent humor set forth by a woman director -- all of which we need more of. Lots to laugh and think about in this film, and you can see it starting May 18th.