- Running time:
- 99 minutes
- Hugh Dancy -
- Dr. Mortimer Granville
- Maggie Gyllenhaal -
- Charlotte Dalrymple
- Jonathan Pryce -
- Dr. Dalrymple
- Felicity Jones -
- Rupert Everett -
Though its title has the ring of a horror movie, Hysteria (* * ½ out of four, rated R, opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles) is all about good vibrations.
A romantic comedy that centers on the development of the electromagnetic vibrator during the prudish Victorian era is an idea rife with humorous possibilities.
But the comic elements of this semi-factual tale are heavy-handed, and a key romance falls flat. Despite its titillating subject matter, Hysteria is only mildly stimulating. The final third of the story meanders during a tedious trial and clumsy speechifying.
The story does cleverly expose the fallacy of the medical diagnosis known as "hysteria," widely dispensed by doctors at the end of the 19th century.
Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, an idealistic, forward-thinking doctor who can't seem to hold a job as he argues against established medical practices such as leeching. The tale is loosely based on fact: In 1880, a doctor named Joseph Mortimer Granville did develop the electric vibrator, though for use with muscle aches, not as a sex device.
When the fictional Granville applies for a position with the successful doctor Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in "hysterical" women, he gets the job and quickly develops an affinity for the doctor's unorthodox treatments. Essentially, Dr. Dalrymple believes that manually stimulating his respectable female patients with a "vulvar massage" is a physical necessity that will calm their frazzled nerves.
Granville goes along with the program and half-heartedly courts the doctor's traditionally minded daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). Emily's sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is as feisty, independent and passionate as Emily is dutiful and mild. A feminist, she angers her father by helping the poor at a ramshackle London settlement house rather than playing the piano and studying phrenology, as Emily does.
Gyllenhaal gives the film's liveliest performance, though her dialogue is too often soapbox-stilted. Jones seems rather like she's sleepwalking. Pryce is pitch-perfect as the smarmy doctor, and Dancy's character is the most complex — both earnest and knowing.
For a film that ostensibly reveals women's desires, however, it's more gimmicky than sexy. And scenes featuring prolonged aural expressions of female sexual pleasure don't hold a candle to Meg Ryan's unforgettable scene in When Harry Meets Sally.
Granville's techniques begin to deteriorate as his hand stiffens and grows less dexterous. Luckily for him, his iconoclastic flatmate, Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), an amateur inventor, has developed a vibrating utensil that Granville uses to soothe his aching hand. This leads to Granville's brainstorm: utilize the apparatus for his hysterical patients.
At its best, the film has a blithely charming quality. The production design, amid an authentic-looking London in 1880, gives it an arty polish. But the clashes between uptight, moralistic types and free-thinkers resort to stereotypes and clichés.
While it attempts to be a naughty period comedy in the vein of Oscar Wilde, by the time it reaches its climax, Hysteria lacks electricity.