Victorian London. Young physician Mortimer Granville (Dancy) gains work as an assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce), who treats female patients for hysteria by giving them manual relief. When Granville begins to suffer from repetitive strain injury,
A period comedy about the invention of the vibrator? Surely an opportunity for a rare old romp. Director Tanya Wexler keeps the tone light as handsome doctor Granville (Hugh Dancy) sets about the task of inducing “paroxsym” in his “hysterical” female patients. It’s deemed impossible for women to have orgasms, after all, so this is merely a medical procedure and one Granville takes amusingly seriously. Soon, London ladies are queuing around the block for a massage while his droll chum, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), looks on with sardonic amusement, before stumbling on the invention that will bring relief to both his worn-out friend and millions of women.
This gets plenty of mileage mocking old-fashioned myths about women’s sexuality while using suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to communicate the film’s message about the rights of both women and the poor (she works at a refuge). Gyllenhaal gives the role her all, although it’s hard to believe her strident character would be drawn to mild-mannered Granville, who first sets his sights on prissy sister Emily (Felicity Jones).
Despite its loud protestations to the contrary, the script often doesn’t appear to understand women any better than its flummoxed hero. Most patients are stereotypical frustrated housewives wheeled on to do a Meg Ryan at regular intervals.
Still, the story— based on true events — is historically fascinating and the casting is terrific. Everett is tremendous fun as the rich, faddish St. John-Smythe, so excited by new invention the telephone that he calls strangers for a chat. Sheridan Smith is perfectly cast as a ruddy-cheeked former prostitute now working as a maid in the doctor’s home. You get the feeling that saucy, sussed Molly is one of the few characters who really understands female sexuality. For all its flaws, Hysteria has charm to spare and is sure to raise a smirk as well as remind you how far women’s rights have come — including their right to come.
Lightly humorous, well performed and not nearly as smutty as you might imagine. The earth may not move, but there are tingles of pleasure along the way.