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Film / Hysteria

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A romantic comedy about oppression and hypocrisy in 19th century England, starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, and Jonathan Pryce.

It starts with our male protagonist Mortimer Granville (Dancy) working as a doctor at a hospital. He gets fired for believing in silly new fads such as germ theory, the idea that doctors should wash their hands before surgery, that soiled bandages should be replaced and the idea that diseases and infections are caused by tiny invisible monsters that are not spiritual in nature.

As he finds a new job at a clinic for hysterical women, he quickly run into a woman (Gyllenhaal) who is just as crazy as he is: she actually believes in equal rights, or at least rights at all, regardless of class and gender, stirring up all kinds of trouble with outlandish demands such as the ideas that women ought to be allowed to vote and that even poor people should get education and healthcare.


Oh, and the whole thing is kinda based on a true story. Kinda. It's also about the invention of a medical tool that is still very popular, although all claims about its medical usefulness have long since been debunked: the vibrator.

Has examples of:

  • Activist Fundamentalist Antics: Some of the more illiberal characters try to portray Charlotte, the female protagonist, in this light and view her progressive opinions and activism as wrong or harmful to the society, and they consider Charlotte rude, unladylike or downright crazy and hysteric (in the medical sense of the word).
  • Arranged Marriage: Dr Dalrymple arranges a match between his younger daughter Emily and his employee Dr Granville. It has zero chemistry and only very small potential for happiness. Emily knows this from square one, but goes along with it anyway because her father told her to.
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  • Born in the Wrong Century: From her socialist political views to her formal attire (specifically an absolutely scandalous shoulder-baring strapless gown worn more than forty years before it was supposedly invented), Charlotte Dalrymple gives the impression of a radical 20th or 21st century feminist born too early.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: This comic exchange:
    Edmund: (making a toast) To the telephone.
    Mortimor: To the Queen.
    Edmund: To calling the Queen on the telephone.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When Doctor Dalrymple arranges for Charlotte's settlement house to be shut down, she yells at him "These are the actions of a villain!"
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: The film describes the invention of a vibrator. At the end of the movie, Emily is shown seizing one of those and seeking a private place.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Most of the film's characters consider the idea of women's suffrage amusing at best.
  • English Rose: Emily, the younger of two daughters of widowed Doctor Dalrymple. She is a pretty, gentle and dainty young woman with fair skin and dark hair. (She is played by Felicity Jones who has the right look). She knows her father depends on her help in his household and she is a very obedient and affectionate daughter. Because of her father's expectations, she tries to fulfil the Victorian ideal of "angel of the house". Later, by the end of the film, she knows herself better and wants to be more her own person, but she is still a very nice girl, with the promise that she will be more cheerful and happy.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: One of the poor hysteria sufferers at the beginning seems to get no pleasure at all from sex with her husband, going so far as to imagine "splitting his fat, bald head with a great large axe" when he comes to her at night. Dr Dalrymple is actually a bit more progressive on this point than some of his contemporaries, granting that female sexual pleasure is possible, but only with the penetration of the male organ (in spite of all evidence to the contrary).
  • No Mere Windmill: The following "windmills" are in fact real threats or real inventions. Neither claim is ever proven within the actual movie, the narrative counts on the audience possessing basic education.
    • Germs do exist. The general public doesn't believe in the germ theory and neither do several important, high-class doctors.
    • Giving women the right to vote is actually a good idea.
    • The cure for hysteria. While it doesn't cure any medical condition per se, the device still turns out to be jolly good.
  • Noodle Incident: Edmund St. John-Smythe is notorious enough to appear in the newspapers, but what got him there is less than clear.
    Charlotte: Oh Edmund Smythe from the papers!
    Edmund: Overblown, I assure you. I attended that party only as a favor to a dear friend and I can swear that I never met that horse before in my life.
    Charlotte: <laughs> Sounds as if you had a jolly good time!
    Edmund: Well actually I did rather, yes...
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: An opening title asserts that the movie is based on true events and then continues... Really.
  • Proper Lady: Deconstructed. Emily Dalrymple channels this Victorian ideal of a properly feminine woman. She is a rather capable mistress of her widowed father's household, and agrees to marry her father's young assistant so that his successful medical practice could stay in the family even though she loves him more like a friend or a brother. Later she admits that she behaved like her father had expected her to behave, and she wants to be more true to herself and behave more freely.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Fortunately for Charlotte Dalrymple, Victorian London doesn't lack good judges. Finding the Crown's case for hysteria wanting, he remarks that if they were to "lock-up every female in whom whimsy and logic collide" they would have to imprison most of the women in England (his wife included). Charlotte is still punished for striking a policeman in the performance of his duties, but she is remanded into ordinary criminal custody instead of being committed to an asylum where she would have lost her uterus.
  • Rich Kid Turned Social Activist: Charlotte Dalrymple. She's a young daughter of a rich medical doctor from the upper-middle class who used her dowry to help the poor. She runs a settlement welfare house and personally teaches poor children. She helps prostitutes (for example, Dr Dalrymple's maid Molly is a former prostitute) and is unapologetic about her progressive opinions. She also tries to raise more money from other rich people of her acquaintance.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons:
    • Dr Dalrymple rightfully observes that many women in Victorian London suffer greatly, and his treatment does offer relief, but hysteria is not to blame.
    • We come to see Emily Dalrymple's Phrenological assessment of Dr Granville's characteristics (wise, sympathetic, and fated to be famous) are completely accurate, if only by accident.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Charlotte Dalrymple, Up to Eleven, and she actually crosses a line to an early feminist. She is very rebellious, fights (at times rather aggressively) for a better society, tries to improve the sad situation of the poor, helps prostitutes (and does not blame them for what the society forces them to do, neither is she condescendingly compassionate to them) and is unapologetic about her progressive opinions. Her appearance is very feminine though, and at the ball she enchants almost everybody with her beauty and charm. Some narrow-minded and illiberal people do not consider her a lady, but the more sympathetic characters do. Her Proper-Lady-like sister Emily admires her very much.
    Mortimer Granville: How is it, Miss Dalrymple, that you are so much the ideal and your sister is so... so volatile?
    Emily Dalrymple: Well, I'm hardly ideal, Doctor, and... Charlotte, she just... feels everything so strongly. If you truly knew her, you would see she is terribly clever and wonderfully charitable.
    Mortimer Granville: Well, if she's earned such love and admiration from one so kind and gentle as yourself, I shall never speak poorly of her.
  • Straw Feminist: In-universe audience reaction to the female protagonist, Charlotte, who endlessly tries to improve the situation of the poor and also women's position in the society. Her acquaintances consider her laughable and embarrassing, but she is very self-assured and knows she does the right thing. The real life audience is not encouraged to agree with those vile Victorians.
  • The Suffragette: Charlotte is the example from the late Victorian period who argues her case and tries to convince people with discussion and argument. She believes in equal rights regardless of class and gender. Some characters consider her demands that women should to be allowed to vote beyond crazy.
  • Thanks for the Mammary: Mortimer is distracted and accidentally runs into Charlotte who is riding a bicycle and they are both knocked down. He ends end up lying on top of her and accidentally touches her breast. It happens again a moment later when he helps her up.
  • Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Dr Dalrymple - father of the female protagonist, and a firm believer in the inferiority of women... along with sciences such as phrenology.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: While uneducated and rather crude, Molly is portrayed as an okay person with an okay life. The audience isn't given any excuses to pity her or otherwise look down on her. However, she is extremely lucky that Charlotte helped her out. Other street girls were not as lucky.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Dr Mortimer Granville existed in the late 19th century, and invented a vibrating electrical device based on an existing invention, initially for the purpose of orthopaedic self-treatment (this is given a nod in the film, where he applies the vibrator to his aching hands). He called it the Hammer. While Dr Granville did have an interest in hysteria, he did not apply his invention towards treating it; he used it for physiotherapy in men. Granville didn't invent the vibrator, as such; he invented the electric massager. The rest is fiction.
  • Victorian London: London in the late Victorian period is the setting of the film. The characters come mostly from the rich, upper-middle-class background, so the audience might enjoy the gorgeous clothes, beautiful furniture and lavish dinners or balls, but the ugly side appears as well (poor conditions and dirt at the hospital, Charlotte's charitable school for poor children or her settlement house).
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Charlotte comes from the upper-middle class and her family is comfortably rich. She uses her dowry to help the poor and sets up a school for poor children. She also tries to get charity money from other wealthy people.
  • Weekend Inventor: Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, son of Mortimer Granville's noble benefactors and his sometime roommate, is highly interested in electrical devices and spends much of his time puttering around with them as a hobby. What he intended to be an electric feather duster winds-up saving Mortimer's career and makes him independently wealthy to boot.
  • Windmill Political: The concept of "hysteria". Treated as a dangerous condition that harms almost every woman, but modern medical science does not recognize it as a valid diagnosis. There are more modern concepts in psychiatry and psychology that would cover the obsolete umbrella term.


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