In the olden days, “hysteria” was a medical term applied to women (it comes from the Greek for “uterus”) to describe everything from anxiety to melancholy to fluid retention. Some of the symptoms were eventually attributed to a lack of sexual satisfaction, though it took a while for doctors to express this directly. Anyway, the point is, the movie “Hysteria” is about the invention of the vibrator.
The title card sets the whimsical tone: “This story is based on true events. Really.” In London in 1880, a young doctor named Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) keeps bouncing from one hospital job to another because his modern theories — he believes in things called “germs” — are at odds with established medical practices, which emphasize leeches and superstition. Granville finds a kindred spirit in Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who runs a very busy practice treating hysteria with a controversial new method known as “vulva massage.” To put it as delicately as I can, Dr. Dalrymple uses his fingers to stimulate the patient’s sex organ until she arrives at “hysterical paroxysm.”
Lascivious though it may sound, neither Dalrymple nor his patients consider the act to be any more “sexual” in nature than administering a Pap smear (which didn’t exist yet in those days, but you know what I mean). (Look, I know the histories of a lot of gynecological procedures.) In fact, it’s a lot of work being at the forefront of the digital revolution, and Granville is soon plagued with hand cramps and sore muscles. If only there were a method that didn’t require so much manual labor…!
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It isn’t until the end of the movie that the electric vibrating massager is invented, though its arrival is foreshadowed by Granville’s friendship with Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), an Oscar Wilde-ian layabout who loves tinkering with the latest technology and gadgets. (It’s strangely nostalgic to see Everett play the kind of amusing, desexed sidekick he used to play all the time 10-15 years ago. When Lord Edmund becomes one of the first people in London to own a telephone, you just know he’ll also be one of the first people to talk dirty on it.)
In the meantime, the story is about Granville and Dalrymple’s daughters. He’s quickly engaged to Emily (Felicity Jones), Dr. Dalrymple’s pride and joy, a refined, intelligent woman who plays Chopin on the piano and will one day make a fine “doctor’s wife.” But the other Dalrymple girl is more interesting. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is indecorous and brash, in favor of women’s suffrage and equality and not afraid to yell at any man who says otherwise. She has dedicated her life to helping the poor at a settlement house. She thinks her father’s work shows a fundamental misunderstanding of women’s health (which is true, but he’s still ahead of most of his colleagues) and disgusted by his doctorly focus on treating only well-to-do patients.
It’s all a good bit of light, inconsequential fun, directed by Tanya Wexler from a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer. But it’s not exactly (pardon the expression) deep or penetrating in its examination of female sexuality, or of the feminist movement, or of medical science’s attitude toward ladies and their parts. Much of the humor is broad and scoff-worthy, as when one patient, an opera singer, literally hits a high note at the completion of her weekly treatment. The story falls into formula, too, complete with a dopey courtroom scene in which an impassioned speech by Charlotte is met with thunderous applause.
But what is it they say? Mediocre sex is better than no sex at all? “Hysteria” is a notch above mediocre, with charming performances by Pryce, Dancy, and Everett, plus Sheridan Smith as a saucy prostitute-turned-slutty-maid. Gyllenhaal doesn’t have the right accent to play Charlotte, but she has her fire, and she easily dominates every scene she’s in. I give it two fingers up. Way up.
B- (1 hr., 40 min.; )