Hysteria, a story about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian London, could have been the perfect companion piece to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sexually-charged 2002 movie, Secretary.
It promises to be an exploration of female desire, a subject that remains something of a taboo in mainstream cinema. Instead, we get an insipid period drama with more in common with Patrick Stewart’s TV movie A Christmas Carol than Gyllenhaal’s cult classic.
It tells the story of Mortimer Granville, a young doctor who invents a rudimentary vibrator as a remedy for female “hysteria”, a catch-all term for everything from insomnia to schizophrenia. The contraption, which looks like something from sci-fi movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, proves rather popular with the unfulfilled women of Victorian London.
But, for a film that seems to consider itself incredibly forward-thinking (it opens by telling you that it is based on true events, before appending this with “Really!”, as if you should mentally prepare yourself for the outrageous events to follow), it is remarkably coy about its subject matter. The female characters are a procession of implausible caricatures, from the prim nouveau riche Victorian maiden to the hooker with a heart of gold. One woman even yells, “Tally ho!” at the point of orgasm because she’s, you know, posh, and that’s what posh people say, right? The moment a woman walks into Granville’s practise complaining that her ill-defined malady prevents her from being able to sing, there is little doubt as to what her toe-curling happy ending will involve.
Gyllenhaal is completely, hopelessly miscast as the rambunctious sister to Granville’s apparent love interest – all shiny American teeth and LA tan – despite her flurry of strangled English vowels. The whole movie becomes a sanitised pantomime, relying on innuendo for its laughs (“My, your rigid thrombus startled me!”; “careful not to prick yourself!”): it would have been better named Carry On Masturbating. Even the editing is lazy, resorting to clichéd montage to illustrate the threadbare storyline. There is the “getting a job montage” (failed interview, collapse into chair, failed interview, collapse into chair, repeat), the “getting more patients montage” (women queue around block, nurse writes in patient log, queue around block, write in patient log, repeat ad infinitum). Hysteria almost completely sidesteps the thorny issue of sex, settling instead for a hackneyed commentary on class. The promising subject matter deserves better – not unlike it’s subject matter, once you’ve started you begin to wish it would just hurry up and reach it’s tedious conclusion.
First published in City A.M.