After seeing hundreds of films each year—narratives, documentaries, and short films alike, and everything from remakes and/or sequels to original stories—every now and again, you come across a storyline that you never figured you would ever write about. The new romantic comedy from director Tanya Wexner (Ball in the House and Finding North), Hysteria, opening Friday, June 1 at the Edina Cinema, concerns a subject with an interesting history: the female vibrator. Yes, the vibrator—in, no less, a story that takes place in the very peak of Victorian times in London around 1880.
Hysteria features a great cast of mostly British actors and one American actor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, trading in her American voice for a British accent. When a young struggling doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), gets an opportunity for an interview with another an older and leading specialist in women’s medicine, Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), the two of them begin practicing and helping women suffering from a disorder of the uterus better known as “hysteria,” and soon Dr. Dalrymple’s business begins to take off. Impressed with Granville and thankful for “an extra pair of hands,” Dalrymple introduces Granville to his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones) and thinks the two should be wed—perhaps Granville could be a worthy successor for Dalrymple and their thriving business.
Things become complicated when older daughter Charlotte (Gyllenhaal) and Granville meet. Charlotte is nothing like proper Emily: she’s working to help women secure their rights to be educated, live independent lives, and vote. It is only later when Granville and his lifelong friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupett Everett), a semi-inventor and eccentric man, stumble onto a new technological discovery of turning an electric feather duster, powered by a generator, into an electric vibrating massager, a.k.a. the world’s first vibrator.
Enter Wexner, who was in Minneapolis a few weeks ago in support of the film. She was, as she puts it, “was on a mom break” (she is a mother of four) and was approached by a producer friend who told Wexner, “I know what your next movie is.” She said, “I had been looking at other projects, but nothing was really super compelling, but when [my friend] told me that it was a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, I said, sign me up!” It also helped that Wexner was friends with the screenwriters.
Serving as only the director of Hysteria (“I’m not a writer/director, I’m just a director/director,” she quipped), Wexner did have a fair amount of research to do concerning the historical aspects of the story and the time period; the story comes across as a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction case. Wexner laughs and gives a spot-on explanation: “Women were being treated through manual massage and no one thought it was sexual. There weren’t a lot of victims, at least I’m sure there weren’t too many, but there could have been some sleazy people who figured it out, I’m sure. But for these guys [doctors] it was their job, and it was boring and tiring, which is crazy, right? Where the women thought, ‘This is the best physical therapy I’ve ever had.’”
Laughing again knowing there was a pure comedy in this material, she continued regarding the logical approach to directing the film. “Really, the vibrator was invented for a man. It was a labor saving device for a guy cause his hand got tired.” I laugh this time as Wexner is really on a roll discussing the film and we begin talking about how accurate is this story really, and Wexner answers, “I think the joke isn’t, ha ha, the vibrator. The joke is, oh my god they really did this. The more mired it is in authenticity and historical accuracy, the funnier it gets. The historical, medical, political, economic times were the best truth that we could find including everything from production and costume design, to hair and make-up. When you go to make a film in the U.K., they do Victorian England better than anyone, and over and over again. It’s their bread and butter. The romantic comedy plot was a screwball comedy inspired by Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.”
Assembling the cast did not prove to be difficult, especially when Wexner was able to cast Pryce (Brazil, Pirates of the Caribbean). Wexner remembers at the first table reading she gave him special thanks for being the first to sign on. In her best British accent Wexner explains Pryce’s response after she thanked him, “I’m happy to have done it and if someone would have come along with a larger part and more money, I would have done that instead.” We both laugh as she begins talking about casting Gyllenhaal, as the lone American in the film. Wexner was open to having an American actor play the role of Charlotte. “She was always on the list of someone to play Charlotte. I did have some help though through another producer friend; casting director Judy Cairo, who Maggie worked with on Crazy Heart, was able to get it to Maggie’s manager and have her read the script. She also had experience in playing a British character in Nanny McPhee 2 and had a good dialect coach and from the moment she came on-set she spoke in a British accent.”
When you make a film about the invention of the vibrator, you do have some funny stories about getting comfortable with the subject. “I got over my own vibrator uncomfortableness a few years ago, when I gave one to everyone on the cast and crew, both men and women, and I told them, “remember its not your competition, it’s a member of your team.”
The overall response of Hysteria has been positive from critics and audiences, but especially from audiences at its world premiere in Toronto last September and its U.S. premieres at Tribeca in April (including Wexner’s mom, who went to both the festival premieres). Wexner says it’s hard not to read critic reviews, but “You can’t really change the movie after it premieres.”
What Wexler would like to have audiences take away from the film matches the tone of Hysteria itself. “The movie is very much about of empowerment and being happy. I hope people go expecting a really fun enjoyable romantic comedy and some laughs. Maybe you go out after the movie grab a glass of wine with some friends and maybe you realize there is a little more to talk about. I don’t think it’s going to solve every problem about gender and equality through the ages, but you’re basically in charge of your own happiness. It is supposed to be a little fun, and it doesn’t take a doctor to change that.”