A Fine Romance Friday: Hysteria

I truly don’t understand why Hollywood has turned away from the romance–and why they never adapt romance novels to the big screen. Even when today’s filmmakers manage to produce a decent movie with a love story in it, such specimens all too often fly under the radar, waiting to be discovered on cable and streaming video services. Today’s selection is just such a film: Tanya Wexler’s 2012 historical romance Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett.

Our plot is thus: in the late Victorian period, the young doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy) had been challenging outdated and inhumane practices in London hospitals, and he now finds himself unemployed. He takes a job with the older Dr. Dalrymple (Pryce) who treats hysteria in upper class women via, um, manual stimulation. The two develop a thriving practice, Granville becomes engaged to his partner’s young, biddable daughter (Jones). But he also repeatedly clashes with Dalrymple’s other daughter (Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who spends her days doing charity work in the East End of London and saying provocative things to every members of the upper crust she comes in contact with. Everything is good until Granville develops carpal tunnel syndrome, but his listless inventor friend (Everett) then invents a mechanical device to achieve the same effect. (Essentially an early vibrator.) It’s feminist fantasy history with bon mots tossed in.

Much like Beyond the Lights (which I recommended here!), Hysteria is a romance novel come to the screen. It’s witty and sweet, and the final romantic resolution is believable. While I sometimes found it to be a bit snigger-y (is that a word?) and while the film is far more prudish than it wants or needs to be given the subject matter, it’s a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

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4 thoughts on “A Fine Romance Friday: Hysteria

  1. Yeah, it was a bit prudish. They could have explored the resultant relationship between patient and doctor or doctor’s reactions/views a bit more realistically and intellectually, but maybe they thought the audience wouldn’t receive that well.

    • I thought _Hysteria_ wanted to have it both ways on female orgasm. On the one hand, it was played for broad laughs; female orgasm literally breaks Granville’s hand. But the film also wanted to see it through a feminist lens, as a way that this group of women claim pleasure back from the patriarchy that’s trying to use their femaleness against them. But the problem with the second isn’t just that it’s complicated by the first, but also that it’s available to so few women. Like, very few women in late Victorian Britain are going to have access to the vibrator, and the film acknowledges this in the East End segments. (And those segments also have “upper class savior” overtones.)

      I still really enjoyed the film, specifically every time Everett was onscreen and the way the Dancy/Gyllenhaal relationship developed, but it isn’t perfect.

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