Hysteria

R / 95mins / Comedy, Romance / May 18, 2012 (Limited)
Hysteria

In an age of invention, one man set out to find a medical cure for what ails women... and accidentally electrified our love lives forever.

HYSTERIA is a lighthearted romantic comedy that tells the surprising story of the birth of the electro-mechanical vibrator at the very peak of Victorian prudishness. Academy Award® nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal (CRAZY HEART, NANNY McPHEE RETURNS) and Hugh Dancy (ADAM, CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC) lead an accomplished cast in this untold tale of discovery.

London, 1880. MORTIMER GRANVILLE (Hugh Dancy), a dedicated and forward-thinking young doctor, is struggling to establish his career. While Granville preaches sanitation and germ theory, the old guard of doctors cling to leeches and hacksaws, scoff at his upstart ideas, and show him the door.

Granville’s fortunes change when he arrives for an interview at the well-appointed private offices of DR. ROBERT DALRYMPLE (Jonathan Pryce), London’s leading specialist in women’s medicine. Dalrymple has a thriving solo practice; indeed, his waiting room is overflowing with well-dressed women suffering “weeping, nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia, and anxiety” – afflictions of the female nervous system thought to stem from a disorder of the uterus known as “hysteria.”

Fortunately, enlightened medicine has shown that hysteria can be treated by relieving tensions within the womb, and Dalrymple’s treatments are so successful that, as he explains to Granville, “another pair of hands” is his urgent need. Granville is hired on the spot.

Granville’s improved lot in life makes him a worthy suitor for Dalrymple’s daughter EMILY (Felicity Jones), whom Granville considers “the epitome of English virtue and womanliness” with her lovely face, demure manner, and artistic and intellectual accomplishments.

As dutiful and proper a daughter as is Emily, her elder sister CHARLOTTE (Maggie Gyllenhall) is the opposite: she’s a firebrand social reformer, arguing passionately for women’s rights to be educated, vote, and live independent lives unshackled by domestic drudgery. And yet, she works long and hard herself, running a settlement house for poor women and children in London’s East End, dashing around London on her bicycle, cajoling her disapproving father for a bit more money to keep the coal furnace running and the schoolroom open. Dalrymple is dismayed by Charlotte’s progressive views and lower-class associations; Charlotte is scornful of her father’s medical practice that profits from, as she sees it, the imaginary problems of affluent women.

Although Granville is somewhat shocked by Charlotte’s lack of propriety, he feels kinship with her conviction to help those in need. They snipe at each others’ views, but he earns her grudging respect when he treats a poor settlement house woman with a broken ankle.

Just as Granville’s life seems to be settling into prosperity and security, engaged to Emily with the prospect of partnership in Dalrymple’s lucrative practice, his hopes are dashed by an affliction of his own: hand cramps. Granville’s dextrous massage therapy, which requires “steady, constant pressure,” has caused what in the present day would be call “repetitive stress syndrome.” Granville finds himself unable to perform his duties satisfactorily. He loses his job and, with it, his fiancee.

Granville seeks refuge with his lifelong friend, the eccentric and wealthy EDMUND St. JOHN SMYTHE (Rupert Everett), whose passion is newfangled technology (he has a telephone installed before Buckingham Palace does). Smythe has been tinkering with an invention of his own, an electric feather-duster powered by a rumbling electic generator installed in his parlor. Absent-mindedly handling the duster, Granville is struck by how pleasurable the sensation of the machine’s steady vibration feels in his hand, and a brilliant idea takes hold. A few simple adjustments, a bit of experimentation, and the world’s first electric vibrating massager is created.

Granville and Smythe convince Dalrymple to try out the innovation on his patients, with spectacular results. Once again, Granville is installed as Emily’s fiance and Dalrymple’s heir-apparent. But every encounter with the vexingly outspoken Charlotte challenges his complacency and reawakens his physician’s idealism. Charlotte will stop at nothing to keep her settlement house running, up to and including assault on a bothersome policeman.

Arrested and put on trial, Charlotte’s only chance to stay out of prison is a diagnosis of severe hysteria, which would cause her to be sent to a mental institution instead. As a leading specialist in the treatment of hysteria, Granville is asked to testify. As he considers what he will say, the responsibility calls into question everything he truly believes – about medicine, hysteria, conformity, women, and his own heart.

The upshot is a witty, winning comedy that not only reveals how the vibrator became one of the first electrical appliances in history to earn a patent – but also, how it sent sparks flying between a cautious man and a liberated woman brought together by the wonders of friction.

"Hysteria" stars Anna Chancellor, Ashley Jensen, Felicity Jones, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rupert Everett, and Sheridan Smith.

Directed by Tanya Wexler.
Written by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer.
Produced by Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis, and Tracey Becker.
Production company/distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

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