Hysteria might be about the invention of the vibrator, but its account of this chapter in sexual history is both amusing and dignified. Director Tanya Wexler's mildly risque film is, in fact, a very pretty, well-designed costume drama and a delightful romantic comedy - the sort of thing you could recommend to your open-minded mother.
Hugh Dancy is Dr Mortimer Granville, an idealistic young physician who struggles to hold down a job in London in the 1880s due to his progressive views on germs. He finally finds regular employment with Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London's "foremost specialist in women's medicine", who is a dab hand at administering pelvic massages to wealthy housewives diagnosed with the medical condition "hysteria".
The arrival of the handsome young doctor leads to a drastic rise in the number of women in London suffering from the hysteria symptoms of "weeping, nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia, and anxiety". Granville quickly becomes indispensable, engaged to Dr Dalrymple's polite young daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), and expected to take over the practice.
Granville is, however, confronted by obstacles. He begins suffering from debilitating hand cramps, and is flustered by Emily's feminist sister Charlotte (Gyllenhaal) who is constantly challenging him to put his education to better use.
It's nicely cast, with everyone on board and hamming it up to keep the storytelling tongue-in-cheek. Some do it better than others, but nobody does it better than Rupert Everett as Granville's wealthy best friend and inventor Edmund St. John-Smythe. He's witty and edgy without going over the top (unlike a few of his cast-mates) and it's a pity he doesn't feature more, especially as it's Edmund who comes up with the bright idea of how to save Granville's career.
Though Wexler nicely incorporates observations on the prudish social mores of the Victorian era, the emergence of new technology and the growth of the feminist movement, she leans too much towards the farcical and Hysteria becomes cute rather than clever. Hysteria isn't hysterical, but it's a light-hearted romp that will create its own buzz.
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director: Tanya Wexler
Running time: 99 mins
Rating: M (Sexual references)
Verdict: A pretty and amusing farce about a sex toy.