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Film handles sex in the Victorian age

Jun. 5, 2012
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Although clinical hysteria is rarer than leprosy nowadays, in the 19th century it was regarded as a symptom of the age. A common diagnosis in those years, especially for the maladies of middle-class women, hysteria stimulated the research of Freud and Jung. But as the 20th century progressed, the label was seen as both a catchall covering a host of symptoms and a culturally conditioned product of Victorian mores.

But during an era when the expression of female sexuality was discouraged at every turn and medical science held that “normal” women felt no pleasure in lovemaking, a stream of ladies filled doctors' offices seeking treatment. Director Tanya Wexler's Hysteria is a cheeky, racy yet tasteful comedy about one of the cures eventually offered for female hysteria: the vibrator. Cheaper than talk therapy and with fewer side effects than drugs, the vibrator also had the advantage of being something easy to try at home. It was like massaging your temple for a headache, except more fun.

And who knew that the invention of the vibrator dates to 1880s London?

's story is drawn loosely, imaginatively, from the facts. The protagonist, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), is a progressive among drones, a physician who believes in hygiene while most of his colleagues think washing hands before surgery is optional. As the assistant to a leading gynecologist (Jonathan Pryce), Granville routinely performs a prescribed treatment for female hysteria involving gentle stimulation with an index finger. He administers the cure so often that his hand becomes too stiff and sore to execute the task. What now?

The solution comes from Granville's eccentric mentor, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett). With a touch of the Oscar Wilde about him, as they would have said in those days, St. John-Smythe is My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins as drawn by Aubrey Beardsley—a wacky scholar fascinated by the nascent technology of electricity in a world still lit by gas. St. John-Smythe invents a device intended as a power feather duster. A few modifications by Granville, and presto! The world's first vibrator!

depicts the society of Victorian London with a whimsical air of superiority, a hindsight perspective on the foolishness that once passed for knowledge and common sense. The gynecologist has two comely daughters, and it's easy to guess which one Granville will choose, between the sensible-seeming phrenologist Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones) and the suffragette, social activist Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Smartly written with many knowing allusions to the period, Hysteria is a consistently amusing rarity in the summer of 2012—a truly adult comedy.


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