Hysteria, a disappointingly limp ode to the invention of the vibrator, plays like a Merchant Ivory Production of Portnoy's Complaint. Watching it, you'd never know that this revolutionary discovery, by allowing women to pleasure themselves, hammered a crucial nail into the coffin of 19th-century patriarchy. A boon to bluestockings and unsatisfied wives alike, the device rocked sexual politics, even if its full repercussions were not immediately understood.
Director Tanya Wexler couldn't care less. Her focus is on the delicate funny bones of art house audiences, and to that end, her film has been buffed and tweaked into a coy, heavily costumed farce. At its center is the plush waiting room of acclaimed physician Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, bored to death), in which a steady stream of affluent, agitated ladies await treatment for a nonexistent condition known as "hysteria." Blamed vaguely on an "overactive uterus," the diagnosis, which clung to the medical books until 1952, offered a convenient escape hatch for sexually incompetent husbands.
The good doctor, however, has discovered a treatment guaranteed to encourage regular weekly appointments. Coating his fingers in a variety of essential oils, he manipulates his grateful patients' neglected anatomies until they reward him with a "paroxysm" and depart flushed, breathless and with tiny hats askew.
But all this therapeutic diddling is taking its toll on the old man's digits: On the verge of carpal tunnel syndrome, he enlists the help of young Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy), a modern-minded physician looking for a change from the leeches and filth of London hospitals.
Sugaring the deal are Dalrymple's two daughters, one dutiful (Felicity Jones) and one rebellious (Maggie Gyllenhaal); the latter, a budding suffragette, busies herself with a home for unfortunate women and their raggedy kids. What either woman would want with Granville, an effete twerp, is unclear, but soon they're pushing themselves at him while he pushes business through the roof. And when his fingers, too, are no longer able to perform, enter Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett, looking as though he's in witness protection), Granville's benefactor and — fancy that! — an inventor.
With the help of a prototype and a willing prostitute — because what could be a more sensitive testing-ground than the working parts of a London streetwalker? — the electrically powered climax is born. Meanwhile the plot (by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer) continues on its torn-between-two-lovers trajectory, as though orgasm is far less important than Granville's eunuch-like courting.
Politics aside, the real problem with Hysteria is that it's not the tiniest bit sexy. Hints of personal deviance are dropped by Edmund, and pretty young men slip out his back door, but we never see him handle anything more controversial than a feather duster.
Even in the doctor's office, it's all plump matrons and premenopausal jokiness: In one scene, a fleshy supplicant announces her climax with an operatic aria, like Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein warbling "Sweet Mystery of Life" during her seeing-to by that film's impressively endowed monster.
And as we watch Granville at work, his patient draped in a modesty tent and his eyes gazing respectfully skyward, we wonder how he can achieve his goal sight unseen. Sad to say, I think the director took a similar approach to making the movie.