Understandably, this R-rated comedy is being promoted as the story of how the vibrator came to be invented. That’s not untrue, but what makes Hysteria so entertaining is the larger picture it paints of repressed Victorian society. That it does so in the form of a farcical comedy makes it all the more enjoyable.
Hugh Dancy plays an idealistic young doctor with progressive ideas that the medical establishment doesn’t want to hear. He eventually finds a job with eminent London physician Jonathan Pryce, who is renowned for treating the catch-all woman’s ailment he identifies as hysteria. His treatments involve manipulating his finger in a way that pleases his patients no end—yet neither he nor they will acknowledge that pleasure has anything to do with it.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Pryce’s rebellious daughter, a social reformer who runs a settlement house; she is the opposite of her sister, Felicity Jones, a prim, proper young lady who follows Victorian convention and would make Dancy an ideal wife. Yet in spite of himself, he finds himself attracted to the crusading Gyllenhaal.
The screenplay, by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, based on Howard Gensler’s story, makes Dancy’s best friend, wealthy Rupert Everett, a tinkerer who loves to play with the latest in electrical equipment. That, in a roundabout way, is how the vibrator comes into being.
Hysteria isn’t terribly deep, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a flippant movie that has fun playing with, and against, the mores of its era. The expert actors never wink at us, and approach their parts with utmost seriousness—except for the irrepressible Everett, who seems to revel in his role. Director Tanya Wexler strikes the perfect note for her ensemble, and this potentially delicate subject matter. Because the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and remains visually discreet, we’re invited to relax and have fun with it. And why not?