There's an adorable, cutesy vulgarity at work in Hysteria, a semi-serious Victorian-era comedy about the liberating power of the first electrical vibrator.
And if you blushed on reading that, imagine the shades of crimson and snickering amongst cast and crew over all this ... vibrating. The fact that so much of what we hear about onscreen is "true," well ... a body could be forgiven for "taking the vapors."
Hugh Dancy, who plays many roles as if he's on the verge of blushing, is Mortimer Granville, an idealistic and all-but- unemployable physician who knows "germ theory" and all the latest medical science but runs up against dogma, superstition, tradition and leeches (the practice of bleeding patients) at every turn.
Then he finds the one physician who will hire him. Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) is treating "a plague of our time," an epidemic in Victorian London. Women all over town, the middle- and upper-class ones anyway, are being diagnosed with "female hysteria" — a catch-all diagnosis for depression, boredom and lack of sexual fulfillment. And Dr. Dalrymple has become their "Dr. Feelgood" — literally.
Granville learns the art of treating women by giving them sexual release and woos Dalrymple's fetching, proper and quite well-rounded Victorian daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). He steers clear of Dalrymple's eldest, the fiery, outspoken and crusading Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who runs a 19th-century women's shelter and organizes in favor of women's suffrage and other "socialist" causes. Her idealism and blunt pragmatism (she's not buying all this "hysteria" nonsense) challenge Granville in ways we know are going to upend Granville's plans, Dalrymple's practice and Victorian London.
For that to happen, we need divine intervention. That comes in the form of the divine Rupert Everett, giving a dishy and suggestive turn to the wealthy Edmund St. John-Smythe. He's mad for inventions, a born electrical tinkerer. And even if he isn't interested in women (it's implied), he knows a good idea when Granville shows it to him. An electrical gadget that could treat "hysteria" in the home, one that wouldn't electrocute the ladies using it? That stampede he hears is the world beating a path to his door.
It's not a subtle movie, but not a particularly ribald one either. Director Tanya Wexler struggles to let much air into what could have been a delicious, winking farce. But she and her screenwriters were aiming higher — pointing the camera at the sorry lot of middle-class women in even liberal, democratic 19th-century society. That burdens the film with good intentions. The metaphor — release them sexually, release them politically — is beaten into us.
Dancy is fine, Pryce a very proper prig, and Sheridan Smith impresses as a saucy prostitute-turned-guinea-pig for the new gadget. But Hysteria sparkles only when that vintage ham Everett and the transcendent Gyllenhaal share the screen with Dancy. He makes a great straight man to both of them.
The film breaks pace too often (late editing?) and fails to deliver more than two decent lump-in-the-throat moments between the titters. That's a shame because they were going for more. Gyllenhaal's Charlotte does the movie's preaching for it, predicting women getting the vote, becoming doctors, lawyers and what-not.
But there are plenty of those teeny giggles, enough frank and frankly dated and misguided sex and psychotherapy talk to amuse the high school sophomore in us all.