"Hysteria" is a droll and sometimes hilarious film about the invention of the vibrator.
Well, yes, there are certainly other matters at hand in Tanya Wexler's feminist consultation room comedy but all roads lead to the creation of the appliance whose co-inventor suggests calling it the "rubbi nubbi" and which, the movie eventually tells us, is marketed in the back of periodicals as the "Jolly Molly."
You'll have to see the movie to discover the delightful reason why.
Since this has its (very) loose basis in truth, the essence of Wexler's comedy about Victorian sexual understandings is the widespread belief among the all-male practitioners of "women's medicine" that something called "Hysteria" is, as London's leading "women's doctor" puts it, a "plague of our time. I would venture to say half the women of London are afflicted." Their "uteruses are out of control" he offers.
The doc's name is Dr. Dalrymple and he's played by that quintessentially wry British film actor Jonathan Pryce. The good doctor's solution, in his practice, for the treatment of so many female unfortunates is the manual manipulation of their most intimate areas leading to "paroxysms" which clear the mind and lighten the soul.
He explains that it's "the most direct, effective treatment we can offer."
His waiting room is, needless to say, packed with wealthy female clientele. Their response to beginning "therapy" is sometimes a decidedly un-medicinal "tally ho!" which leads the good doctor, in his own spasm of decorum to counsel "steady as she goes, Mrs. Parsons, steady as she goes."
It is, he admits to a prospective young medical associate (Hugh Dancy), "tedious tiring work." That's why he desperately needs a junior partner.
But that associate turns out to be his deliverance -- a handsome young doctor whose only impediment, thus far, in the London medical establishment has been his up-to-the-minute modernity.
With two doctors plying the trade -- one a handsome young man about town -- the waiting rooms are packed. Unfortunately, the young associate develops carpal tunnel problems but that, it turns out, is the mother of invention.
Into the breach comes the young doctor's best friend (Rupert Everett), a tinkerer in electronics who thought he was inventing an electronic feather duster. Ah well.
That, as it were, is the essence of our story but just as important is the young doctor's pursuance of Dalrymple's two lovely daughters -- one a milk-skinned perfectly comported beauty who plays Chopin badly and gives spontaneous readings in phrenology (the study of bumps on one's head); the other an adder-tongued, tempestuous, passionate feminist who runs a settlement house in the wrong part of town and regularly exasperates her eminently, uh, proper father. (She's no stranger to the cops either.)
She's played by the wondrous Maggie Gyllenhaal. The doc's more decorous daughter is played by Felicity Jones. That's all you'll need to know about the film's romantic vectors.
All this is very drolly funny genteel farce. I was hoping that Wexler would kick out the jams a little, can the overly benevolent soundtrack music and take the risk of one or two scenes of 400-hp slapstick. I must admit she comes close enough a couple of times but the way I see it, she'd already done so much, why not throw a wee bit of caution to the wind?
But then, she no doubt reasoned that she did have a serious point to make about the idiocies of the "hysteria" diagnosis so perhaps good comportment served a purpose after all.
A delightful film, by any assay. And don't be in a hurry to leave during the closing credits either. They offer a little documentary evidence of the ever-fertile genius of the human imagination.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett
DIRECTOR: Tanya Wexler
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
RATING: R for well-articulated extreme sexual frankness.
THE LOWDOWN: An epidemic of "hysteria" among British women in Victorian London is treated with the invention of the vibrator.