Well, how DID Victorian ladies get along without vibrators? That’s probably not a question that has been hovering in your mind, but you’ll get the answer anyway in Hysteria, director Tanya Wexler’s deft, witty, slyly feminist comedy of sexual manners, Victorian style.
Hugh Dancy pays the impeccably named Dr. Mortimer Granville, the man who invented the vibrator. (The character is based on a real person, but the plot is fictional.) He goes to work for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who has diagnosed the antsy, nervous, tense discontent of women as Hysteria, and using what you might call digital therapy cures them – temporarily. These things have a way of recurring. Before you can say carpal tunnel syndrome, the overworked Granville develops an electric substitute for his aching hand.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is fiery as Dalrymple’s rebellious, socially conscious older daughter, Charlotte, and Felicity Jones plays the flower-like younger sister, the supposedly perfect match for Mortimer, who will surely bore him silly.
The film might have been a one-note joke, but as the smart trailer suggests, Wexler and her cast – especially Dancy, the central figure – find a perfect balance between humor and a narrative with a serious theme. Nineteenth-century women, whether the sexually discontented ladies who visit Dalrymple, or Charlotte, forging a new independent path by starting a settlement house for poor Londoners, were always much more than prim Victorians.