Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria” feels much like what would result if one took the conceptual gist of Sara Ruhl’s sublimely witty play “In the Next Room,” put it through committee-driven script development, and aimed for the kind of boisterous costume crowdpleaser that congratulates its audience for enjoying such refined entertainment even as it panders. This fictive comedy about the real-life use of vibrators to treat Victorian ladies’ “hysterical” disorders will attract enough positive notices from the usual suspects to support ads suggesting critical consensus. But the overcalculated pic could earn a quick ancillary exit just as easily as sleeper success.
The winking tone is set by the coy announcement “This story is based on true events. Really.” Fledging physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is introduced being fired from his latest 1880s London post for once again insisting on progressive medical ideas (like hospital hygiene) at time when leeches and bleeding are still accepted treatments.
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Desperate for a job, he lands at the door of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who is doing a booming business among genteel ladies afflicted with “hysteria” — a blanket term for practically any female complaint, especially psychological. Dalrymple’s method consists of having them lay down on a table, bare legs parted behind a discreet puppet-theater curtain, and manually massaging their privates to release “nervous tension.” It is stressed this procedure is strictly therapeutic, not sexual, but then these patients probably have no idea what an orgasm is. They just know they really, really like their treatment.
Mortimer proves a quick study (though he develops hand cramps from so much friggery), even being encouraged to woo his mentor’s favored daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), who has a thornier sibling, suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who irks Papa no end by helping the lower classes at a charity settlement house. Ahead-of-her-time “feisty” with a vengeance, she’s like Mary Poppins juggling copies of “Das Kapital” and “The Female Eunuch.”
Naturally, idealistic but convention-bound Mortimer is going to realize he wants to be this spitfire’s domestic partner rather than Emily’s dully respectable husband. But not before a lot of predictable contrivances, including a trial scene that allows the two leads to speechify points the film has already made glaringly obvious.
Most of the comedy comes from Mortimer and wealthy layabout pal Edmund’s (Rupert Everett) semi-accidental invention of the vibrator — which saves Mortimer’s hand further stress and works hitherto undreamt wonders for Dalrymple’s clientele. In contrast with the subtle humor playwright Ruhl eked from erotic awakening under moralistically blindered circumstances, “Hysteria” offers broad laffs via stereotypes and slapstick.
Dancy manages a few sly moments, and Everett is as ever a scene-stealer, if barely recognizable under a beard and altered features, and with a raspy voice. But the estimable Pryce and Jones are wasted, along with many other fine thesps, while Gyllenhaal works too gratingly hard in an already strained role.
Shot in England and Luxembourg, pic is handsome enough on design levels, pro in tech departments. Orchestral score is galumphingly frolicksome in an elephant-in-toeshoes way.