Theres 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 hes on the verge of blushing, is Mortimer Granville, an idealistic and all-but-unemployable young physician who knows germ theory and all the latest medical science, but runs up against dogma, superstition, tradition and leeches 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.
Granville learns the art of treating women by giving them sexual release, and woos Dalrymples fetching, proper and quite well-rounded Victorian daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). He steers clear of Dalrymples eldest, the fiery, outspoken and crusading Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who runs a 19th century womens shelter and organizes in favor of womens suffrage and other socialist causes. Her idealism and blunt pragmatism challenges Granville in ways that we know are going to upend his plans, Dalrymples practice and Victorian London.
For that to happen, we need divine intervention. That comes in the form of Rupert Everett, giving a dishy and suggestive turn to the wealthy Edmund St. John-Smythe. Hes mad for inventions, a born electrical tinkerer. And even if he isnt interested in women (its inferred), he knows a good idea when Granville shows it to him. An electrical gadget that could treat hysteria in the home? That stampede he hears is the world beating a path to his door.
Its 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.
Dancy is fine, Pryce a very proper prig, and Sheridan Smith impresses as a saucy prostitute-turned-guinea-pig for the new gadget.
The film breaks pace too often and fails to deliver more than two decent lump-in-the-throat moments in between the titters. Thats a shame, because they were going for more.