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, his inventor pal, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Everett), comes up with a mechanical solution and the vibrator is born. Meanwhile, Granville courts Emily Dalrymple (Jones) and befriends her feisty sister, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal).
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.
Reviewed by Anna Smith