Back in May, Jason Gorber argued that the charm of director Tanya Wexler's "vibrator comedy" Hysteria was its audience-friendly accessibility. I'd argue that in smoothing down any rough edges, in telling such a safe, easy, and worse bland story about, women's rights, manual stimulation of the clitoris in the pursuit of psychological health, the invention of the vibrator, and psedoscience vs. actual science is what makes Hysteria such an interminably dull movie to sit through.
Far from charming or fun, I found the movie a chore, a constant assault of whimsy and pluck with its back-of-the-class giggling about middle class ladies in the 1880s getting some manual attention from a medical professional to cure the vague but commonly diagnosed set of conditions under the umbrella of "hysteria."
The story sees principled doctor and would-be social climber Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) bounced from his last job for advocating the then nascent "germ" movement which emphasized cleanliness in order to reduce the risk of infections in hospitals. Desperate for work and unwilling to rely on the generosity of his playboy-tinkerer friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett, where have you been), Granville jumps at the chance to join the bustling women-only practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a noted authority in the condition of hysteria. This plague upon the Victorian woman requires a doctor to bring her to "paroxysm" (it was taken for granted at the time that women couldn't orgasm), and Dr. Dalrymple needs an extra set of hands.
As Dalrymple's assistant, Granville is not only on the verge of assuming control of a lucrative practice, but wooing the Dalrymple's youngest daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). But will Granville's frequent, volatile brushes with Dalrymple's spirited, saintly older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) upend everything the ambitious young doctor has worked for?
Structurally, Hysteria is a mess, taking nearly an hour of its 100-minute running time before getting on with showing how Granville ultimately co-creates a more efficient method of getting ladies off. Endless scenes of proper ladies being massaged under a sheet might make for comedy if you think something's inherently funny about that (and if you do, I have a whoopee cushion to sell you). The binary of the plot: will Granville stick with the lady-diddling business or join the sainted cause of saving the poor with Charlotte carries little to no drama, and strangely, there's little if any chemistry between the two leads. Charlotte's typically busting Granville's chops when she's not being thrown into prison for being too decent, while Dancy's character mostly stands around in a look of perpetual bemusement.
If there's a theme in Hysteria, it's this unintended one: don't make a comedy about the embarrassed, backwards-looking sexual mores of the Victorian era if your sense of humor is embarrassed and backwards-looking.
Special features and presentation
It doesn't help that Hysteria includes at least one special feature which makes the movie feel slight be comparison. That would be the nearly 45-minute excerpt (SD) from the documentary Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm. This 2007 doc from directors Emiko Omori and Wendy Blair Slick is a wise and slyly funny look at the change in mores that made the cause of middle class women's orgasms a social issue in 19th century England, and where the vibrator fit into that movement.
Also included on the disc are the theatrical trailer for Hysteria, four deleted scenes (02:52), curiously presented in SD, and a behind-the-scenes featurette (05:41, HD) which is fine as far as a super surface look at the making of the film. "An Evening With Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy, and Jonathan Pryce" (12:26, HD) features the director and her performers on stage at Tribeca talking about the film, and finally there's a feature-length commentary with Wexler.
Hysteria is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD from Sony Home Pictures Entertainment.