In the 1880s, a widespread illness was apparently affecting up to a quarter of London’s female population. In this period, the field of medicine was experiencing shifts in diagnosis and practice, where medicine was moving away from medieval customs such as the use of leaches, to take up a new role of medicine as reasoned science.
By Keeva Stratton
It was discovered that the dissatisfaction of women as housewives was causing an epidemic. This illness, known as hysteria, was understood in scientific terms as being brought about by female dissatisfaction—and the prescribed treatment was one of true satisfaction (a treatment believed, at the time, to not be in the least bit sexual).
When a young doctor finds himself working for a specialised clinic in London that deals with the epidemic, an untimely case of carpal tunnel syndrome makes it particularly difficult for him to perform his duties. He quickly loses the trust and favour of the senior physician, whose youngest daughter he intends to marry, and must look to the experimental electrical inventions of his wealthy friend to assist his cause.
One such invention, intended first as an electronic duster, is quickly stripped of its feathers and provides the necessary good vibrations to allow the treatment to be fulfilled. What follows is an unexpected romance between the doctor and his intended bride’s sister, as well as a new form of hysteria surrounding the release of the product to the home user.
According to the filmmakers, Hysteria is based on true events, just slightly fictionalised so as to work as a film. It traces the remarkable history ascribed to the invention of the vibrator and is as much a commentary on the advent of feminism as it is the delightful drama of an uncanny romance. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rupert Everett are delicious in their respectively exaggerated roles.
Dare we say it, but Hysteria is a hysterical take on the inherent madness in pre-scientific medical diagnosis, set against the early rumblings of the sexual revolution and the politics of female pleasure.
Directed by: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce
Release Date: July 12
Reviewer rating: 3.5/5