The creation of the first vibrator sends ripples through England in the new period comedy “Hysteria,” directed by out lesbian Tanya Wexler.
It is London, circa 1880, and Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) is treating what he feels is female hysteria, which in this time period could mean just about any symptom a woman could have — stress, depression, insomnia and more. His unorthodox method involves inserting a finger in a lady’s vaginal area until their “maladies” go away; that is, until they need another visit. No one knows he is inducing orgasms.
After getting fired from a job where he butted heads with a dinosaur doctor who still believes in leeches, idealistic Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) comes to work for Dalrymple and gets his own fingers busy. Mortimer is instantly attracted to Dalrymple’s younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones).
The dark sheep of the family is older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has resisted her father’s advice and runs a social center of sorts for the poor. She is rebellious and the anti-Emily, speaking up for women’s rights. She is of the belief that her father’s practices are only good for women whose husbands don’t know how to make love to them properly.
Eventually Charlotte runs afoul of the law, but not before Mortimer and his friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (gay actor Rupert Everett) tweak an electric feather duster into a device that can do what fingers can’t always do.
“Hysteria” works really well as a black comedy, with director Wexler tackling the situation with a sense of humor and class. When it becomes a message-y piece about woman’s rights, it’s not nearly as successful.
The romance between Mortimer and Charlotte never clicks either. It could easily have been left out of the film – in a better world, headstrong Charlotte would be a lesbian and Mortimer would be a gay man. After all, he does spend lots of time with Edmund.
If “Hysteria” were bawdier instead of faux-romantic it could have been a terrific film. Its agenda is a little too loaded and it can turn cutesy at times.
Nonetheless, it’s funny and timely as heck, especially in a political season that has focused so much on female reproductive rights.
Top photo: Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith) dusts a newfangled electric vibrator in ‘Hysteria,’ the new film from lesbian director Tanya Wexler. (courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)