Only the British could be so deeply anal when it comes to female sexuality yet manage to invent the world’s first vibrator. Merely a century ago, uptight physicians regarded female desire as a physical, mental, and perhaps, moral malady requiring specialist medical attention. Once diagnosed, the sufferer of hysteria (as it was commonly known) was referred to a stamina-blessed doctor who would professionally root out the symptoms via manual genital massage. (Lucky girls.) To rescue poor doctors from occupational overuse of their hands, and to allow women to perform the same treatment at home, an electromagnetic device was invented to fulfil the work of the clinical hand-job.
Hysteria is the generously lubricated story of the exciting first-base days of the vibrator, as spearheaded by Doctor Granville Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) and his gadget-obsessed associate, Edmund St. John Smith (Rupert Everett). Set in Victorian London, the subject-matter is treated with the appropriate amount of pedantic priggishness typical of the period, with the act itself handled with the utmost decency, and never referred to explicitly. This careful, conscious deliberation works to keep the tone suitably prim and inoffensive, but also dilutes the historical misapprehension of women in terms of physical pleasure and satisfaction. We’re all grown-ups, and by the end of the film, the whimsical chasteness of the characters’ decorum becomes strained and prudish.
Maggie Gyllenhall is curiously cast in a mildly preposterous sub-plot as Charlotte Dalrymple, the Suffragette daughter of Mortimer’s boss, Doctor Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price). Gyllenhall does a surprisingly fine job—as do all of the cast members—but it is Everett who delivers the best lines and facial expressions of the film. Stripped sets give an air of theatre to Hysteria, which reinforces the film as more fantasy than history lesson, but the overall effect is less than orgasmic. Hysteria is about as cheeky and harmless as doing the housework in the nuddy, but when the curtains are pulled this tight you have to wonder if there’s really any point.
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones