People have often set out to bring even the slightest beneficial change to areas they believe in. Their whole lives and purpose can drastically and unexpectedly change by just one person, however. As a result, they’re influenced to create even bigger radical changes than they ever expected. Such is the case with the main characters in the new comedy-drama Hysteria, in which a young doctor looking to revolutionize medicine and a woman looking for equal rights inspire each other to live up to their true potential.
Set in 1880′s London, Hysteria follows dedicated young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who supports modern medicine, despite the hesitance by more established doctors. While preaching sanitation and germ theory, he faces difficulty in finding a hospital or practice that will help establish his career. Mortimer’s luck begins to change when he is given a job at the private offices of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who treats women with hysteria. Mortimer’s life also improves when he begins courting Robert’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), as he admires her artistic and intellectual accomplishments. Her older sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the complete opposite, as she’s a social reformer who argues for women’s rights, much to Robert’s dismay.
However, when Robert discovers Mortimer is suffering from hand cramps and can’t perform his job, he quickly fires the younger doctor. Mortimer seeks refugee with his wealthy friend Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), whose passion is new technology. While holding one of Edmund’s electric feather dusters, Mortimer realizes how pleasurable the machine’s vibration feels in his hands and so he sets out to create the world’s first electric vibrating massager to help treat women’s hysteria.
The idea of basing an entire film on the inadvertent invention of a sex toy may initially drive away viewers who are uncomfortable with the topic. However, director Tanya Wexler didn’t solely rely on Mortimer’s invention to tell the story; she also visually creates an exhilarating commentary on the Victorian lifestyle of the late 1800s through authentic sets and costumes.
Wexler showcases Mortimer’s dedication to improving medicine, and Charlotte’s desire to help the poor, by using the Luton Hoo estate in Bedfordshire, one of the last English locations that still has 19th century characteristics. The estate, which has been in existence since the Middle Ages, offers beautiful, versatile and elegantly understated locations for Robert’s office and the settlement house Charlotte runs.
Wexler also fills the movie with daring and impressive costumes, particularly the Dalrymple sisters’ clothing. Costume director Nic Ede proved Charlotte’s rebellion against the expectations placed upon women from higher classes by wearing revealing clothing. The most intriguing and provocative outfit Charlotte wore was a strapless black dress to Mortimer and Emily’s engagement party, which deeply contrasted her sister’s conservative, Merchant-Ivory style dresses common to the times.
The contrast between Emily staying true to cherished tradition and Charlotte supporting revolutionary, modern changes is also seen through their interactions with the diverse characters. Their beliefs were most intensified through their respective relationships with Mortimer. Darcy brought an understated, quite amusing humor, to the role, especially when Mortimer’s ideals are being challenged by Charlotte. But he still appreciates her versatility and contemporary ideas, and isn’t afraid to listen to her ideas.
Dancy also shows the character’s sophistication through his engagement to Emily. She motivates him to provide modern medicine to all women. However, while she is intelligent in several areas, including music and art, she is happy to stick to her traditional Victorian views and marry her father’s choice of husband. She allows Mortimer to think, and make decisions for her.
Hysteria acts as a riveting commentary the Victorian lifestyle of the late 1800s, showing how revolutionary ideas in medicine and women’s rights were disregarded by many people wanting to stay true to their traditional ideas. Through costumes and sets authentic to the time period, and characters committed to bringing on change, Hysteria isn’t just about the invention of the world’s most popular sex toy; it also showcases how even the most radical ideas can positively change and influence people’s lives.