Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple in the movie "Hysteria." (Liam Daniel / Sony Pictures…)
A polite comedy about a potentially rude subject,"Hysteria"takes its title from the medical condition diagnosed to women in Victorian England for any number of unrelated symptoms. As a treatment, doctors would stimulate a woman to orgasm, referred to as "manual massage to paroxysm," leading one beleaguered physician, essentially as a labor-saving device, to invent the vibrator.
In the film, which opens in Los Angeles on May 18, the progressive young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), whose radical belief that germs cause infections have made him a professional outcast, finds a job in the clinic of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) treating women for hysteria.
The handsome young Granville becomes so popular with his patients that performing the "treatment" becomes physically debilitating on his hands. With assistance from his wealthy friend (Rupert Everett), an enthusiast of the new-fangled technology of electricity, Granville develops a mechanical device to do the work for him.
There really was a Joseph Mortimer Granville who did invent a mechanical device known as "Granville's Hammer," but "Hysteria" is not a historical biopic, says director Tanya Wexler.
"It is based on true events, but we made it all up," said Wexler recently, speaking by phone from her home in New York City. Underneath the tittering joke on the surface she saw something deeper, a story about societal and technological change and the ways in which even people who are forward-thinking in one arena may be blinkered in another.
"We knew the joke, the big joke, wasn't, 'He-he, vibrators' — it was really, 'Can you believe the idea of hysteria?'" Wexler said. "And the idea you'd have this young handsome doctor who could barely hold the hand of the woman he was courting in one scene then in the next scene he's in the office with his hand up a woman's skirt treating her, thinking it's like polishing furniture. To me that's what was always funny, the massive cultural denial, the delusion we could all be in."
"Hysteria" began to take shape when Wexler met producer Tracey Becker, who gave her a one-line pitch — a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England — that Wexler found too funny to pass up. She then turned to writers Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer to craft the script. (Stephen Dyer had produced Wexler's two previous features, "Ball in the House" and"Finding North.")
What they all agreed on was this could be no ordinary heritage picture. The film needed a shot of the bantering, playful energy of classic Hollywood screwball comedies like "Holiday," in which a feisty Katharine Hepburn clashed with a headstrong Cary Grant. Much of that spark is derived from Granville's interactions with Dalrymple's two daughters, the demure and traditional Emily (Felicity Jones) and the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist for women's rights and the poor.
"The tone in the end was kind of given to us by the setting," said Jonah Lisa Dyer. "There is this Victorian setting but with the idea we're going to diddle women for medical practice and pretend it's not sexual."
Added Stephen Dyer, "I think almost immediately there was some sense that you could take 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and 'Howards End' and smash them together somehow and turn it into something that had the look and feel of a Merchant Ivory movie but the tone of something much more modern."
That mix of a period setting with a more modern flair gave the production leeway in some areas — Gyllenhaal's costumes are cheated forward just a bit style-wise — while also causing them careful concern in others. A day's shooting was paused for a conference as to whether it was appropriate for a man and woman to shake hands when meeting at a dinner party.
"The bantery quality had to have that present-day flavor, but all the language and the design and the costumes had to be Victorian," Wexler said. "Victorian-era people weren't sitting around going, 'Aren't we quaint?' They thought, 'We're on the cutting edge.'"
The film's unusual mix of period tones brings into relief how difficult it can be to describe "Hysteria" in a way that acknowledges the intimate awkwardness of discussing the invention of the vibrator. Needless to say, it can make for endearingly self-conscious conversations and press interviews.
"'So do you take your work home?' I have had to field versions of that several times," noted Hugh Dancy with a laugh. The actor is also on Broadway in the play "Venus in Fur," which has sex and power-dynamics among its themes, frequently leading journalists to try to combine the projects into one winking question.
"When you talk about it you either sound like you're describing just a really raucous, bawdy sex comedy or you're talking about some deadly serious story about female emancipation and women's sexual rights," said Dancy about discussing "Hysteria." "And the truth is it walks a bizarre, tasteful line between the two."