7/16/2012 9:01:00 AM MOVIE REVIEW: Paroxysms of all kinds in fact-based comedy Hysteria
Sony Pictures Classics
Rupert Everett contemplates new uses for the feather duster in Hysteria.
David Kanowsky Kudos Movie Critic, The Movie Man
The Sedona Film Festival brought this film to Sedona July 10 and 11. Hysteria has been a film festival favorite around the world since the fall of 2011. It is based on real events, but much liberty seems to be taken with the details - to the benefit of the film.
In the 1870s, in London, young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a dedicated idealistic physician who is a disciple of Dr. Joseph Lister. Granville believes in cleanliness and sterile procedures to prevent infection and death in patients. At this time the most popular antiseptic technique is bleeding and leeches. He loses his position in the hospital when he tries to defy the head surgeon. Granville's uncompromising attitude causes him to be rejected from every other position for which he applies.
Then he meets Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathon Pryce) who has a lucrative practice treating an ailment that is common among upper-class British women - the problem is called hysteria.
Women, mostly middle age, mostly affluent, come to Dr. Dalrymple with complaints of insomnia, disabling anxiety, nervousness, etc. which seem to arise from sexual frustration. Dr. Dalrymple's treatment is a gentle massage of the woman's 'sensitive' area with his aromatically lubricated hand. His patients leave fully satisfied and Dalrymple is well paid. Dalrymple has two beautiful daughters. Emily (Felicity Jones) is well educated and Dalrymple's pride and joy. She is an accomplished pianist and is schooled in philosophy and phrenology. Mortimer is instantly taken with her. The other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is not at all proper or consistent with her father's standards. She is a rebellious outspoken women's rights activist and she donates all her time and effort to a homeless settlement house. Dalrymple likes Mortimer and hires him as an assistant. He trains Mortimer in the technique. And he sees Mortimer as a suitable match for Emily.
Mortimer is successful in helping the frustrated women. It takes a toll on him in the form of a disabled hand (carpal tunnel syndrome). Mortimer's friend, Edmund (Rupert Everett), is an inventor who is constantly playing with electric experiments. Mortimer is toying with the electric feather duster Edmund invented and realizes that the vibration of the hand-held device is very soothing to his troubled hand. Mortimer immediately realizes it might work as the replacement for his hand with women. Their experiment with a prostitute is so successful that they convince Dalrymple to try it on his most difficult patient, a large Italian opera singer. Within minutes, she breaks out into the bombastic aria, Sempre Libera, to accompany her paroxysm (that's what they called an orgasm).
Mortimer is helpful to Charlotte when he successfully treats one of her destitute women who suffered a broken ankle. Mortimer is a humanitarian, but Dalrymple is not. He forbids Mortimer to be involved with the settlement house in any way and works to separate Charlotte from that enterprise. Mortimer is torn between his position with the Dalrymples and his desire to help people in need.
Hysteria may not follow the real history to the letter, but the basic events are there and the movie is interesting for its story of the birth of the vibrator. The issue of assisted masturbation is treated with discretion and with a wonderful sense of humor. The dialog is sharp and witty with many double-entendres that sparkle. The acting by all is very good with special kudos to Pryce and Gyllenhaal. Rupert Everett is as droll as in so many of his other films - a delight. The sets and costumes in Dalrymple's sumptuous home and around the shelter in the tawdry slums are impressively authentic.
Hysteria will not be in any local theater for now; watch for it on DVD later.