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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the obsolescent English gentleman, a creature whose glorious epoch lasted in reality from the regency period to the turn of the century, has become a sex symbol for modern women across the globe.
There are few actors who so seamlessly shrug on a more gentlemanly, or English, persona than BBC favorite, Hugh Dancy. In ‘Hysteria,’ director Tanya Wexler marries one object of female pleasure with another. To wit, Dancy’s English gentleman and the first, British, vibrator. If the result of this union is a little less than paroxysms of cinematic pleasure, it is also a little more than some over-the-sweater petting in the back of a parked Volvo.
The narrative revolves around Mortimer Granville (Dancy), a young physician who is perennially out of work due to his progressive, and necessarily correct, theories on medicinal science. In his search for a new position, Granville applies to work with a specialist on the female condition of ‘Hysteria.’ Not to put too fine a point on it, but the primary method of relieving the symptoms of this perceived malady was through the manual achievement of orgasm.
Granville takes on the position and becomes embroiled in the lives of the specialist (Jonathon Pryce) and his two daughters, the submissive, English rose Emily (Felicity Jones) and the outspoken, social worker Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Drama ensues, and the vibrator is born.
Let’s be clear– “Hysteria” is not a biting social commentary on the relative virtues of feminism, capitalism or any other of the -isms you might care to poke a stick at. In other words, this is not “North and South” or even “Downton Abbey” at its best. Beyond conforming to those basic anachronistic truths that are now readily acknowledge in a contemporary setting– women are people, charity is an asset, inability to accept change does not prevent change from happening et cetera, et cetera– this film doesn’t really attempt to intellectually explore, well, anything.
The subject of female sexuality, something which one would think was irrevocably attached to the story of a gendered sex toy, is actually left pretty well alone. Similarly, Rupert Everett’s debauched, potentially homosexual, philanthropist is almost entirely superfluous to the film despite the blatantly palpable themes somewhat inexpertly attached to his on-screen persona. If it’s a thinking (wo)man’s movie you’re looking for, this particular cinematic offering is not for you.
Essentially, ‘Hysteria’s’ lack of agenda leaves room for a completely different movie about the first vibrator. Probably one without Hugh Dancy in it. And that would be a pity because Dancy, alongside an effervescent Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose movie presence provides a welcome relief after an endless summer of languishing teen heroins staring dolefully at the camera like stunned deer, is adorable. Dancy is stiff, uncomfortable and resoundingly unromantic. In other words, he is a perfect English gentleman.
Image Courtesy of Sony Classics