Thursday, 28 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Hysteria (2011)

Hysteria (2011)

Director: Tanya Wexler

This is a strange film. It looks at the treatment of hysteria in the late Victorian period, treatment which was manually administered; a subject which is ripe for comedy, what with its wrong-headed medical ideas which argue that the convulsions experienced by the women in the treatment are not pleasurable, or that hysteria was a result of womb-wondering. Wexler and the writers tie this story to a B-plot that looks at the seriousness of the charge of hysteria from a law perspective; a woman accused of committing a crime was likely to be diagnosed as hysterical, and therefore have her womb removed, and maybe be sent to an asylum. Not really funny, unless you are a sadistic misogynist. 

The two plots don't work well together. One is comic, utterly played for laughs as the middle-class women line up for their treatment, and Dr Mortimer Granville gets cramps from all the massaging. The other, which follows Maggie Gyllenhaal's Charlotte, is very serious, or at least would be if it wasn't tied to the other plot. The film was marketed as being about the invention of the vibrator, but it really only features briefly compared to the story about Charlotte. It lacks subtlety, and its message is clear from the beginning.

The funniest parts of the film involve Rupert Everett, who is having a blast playing Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, Dr Granville's friend who helps him develop the first vibrator. Lord Edmund is one of the first people in London to own a phone and spends much of the film yelling into the machine at strangers who also own a device.

Apart from that I wasn't really amused, and felt that the 'oh err' approach to the subject was too predictable. It would have been much better if more focused on one or other of the stories, deciding to be completely humorous, or very serious.


  1. I agree this is a strange combination, but it worked for me. I saw it more as being mostly a comedy that turns into a drama towards the end a la Pleasantville, The Big Parade, Defendor, Something Wild, etc.

    1. I suppose it does, though I didn't feel it married the two together. Part of the problem was the marketing, which focused exclusively on the historical story of the vibrator. I suppose I should be glad they didn't spoil the whole story as is their wont.