Based on a two-page treatment and “…based on true events–really,” director Tanya Wexler’s third feature (and the first since 2001’s “Ball in the House”) is a fictional foray into the birth of the electro-mechanical vibrator during England’s prudish Victorian Age. “Hysteria” leads us to believe the Brits are more enlightened than presumed with this light period comedy surrounding the practice and grown daughters of one Dr. Robert Dalrymple, F.R.C.M.P. (Jonathan Pryce, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard), who has a knack for relieving, with his nimble fingerwork, well-to-do women patients of their disorders of the uterus. 130 years ago his procedures to ease the “real” female afflictions (which the film suggests affects half the women in London) variously described as frigidity, melancholia, and anxiety (rather than today’s sexual frustrations), might remind you of a medicine man offering up a magic elixir.
And there is plenty of dreary tonic tossed about in the screenplay and story by husband-wife team Stephen Dyer (who was a producer on Wexler’s earlier works and an executive producer here as well) and Jonah Lisa Dyer. It doesn’t really fire up any excitement on the subject and tacks on a romantic subplot that needed reworking before the camera started rolling. Into the doctor’s stern household arrives handsome, sophisticated, somewhat idealistic, and out-of-work doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who seems unnerved yet willing to lend a hand (pardon the pun, but no doubt other critics have also indulged with such wordplay) when he becomes Dalrymple’s assistant.
Granville, a staid bachelor, decides his position would greatly improve with a marriage to the beautiful, docile, and like-father-like-daughter Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones), although there is very little spark in their relationship. Emily’s father, anxious to retire, sees a suitable successor in the over-achieving youngster. Resolute to stick with his bride-to-be, his situation unravels under the spell of volatile, fiery, and emancipated daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose help-the-needy campaigns cause her father no end of constant embarrassment.
Meanwhile, in the home of his tinkering, old family friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), Granville plays with a small electrical hand motor with some feathers and a light bulb flicks on in his head. The boys-as-Dr. Frankensteins fiddle about with their gizmo before the human trials begin, one of the films few fun moments as an opera singer finally hits her highest note under the device’s influence.
There is much disarray as the plot lines tumble over each other, including a witch-hunting father’s trumped up charges to discredit—and hang from the gallows—his socialist daughter. Toss in apparent references to a predecessor to carpal tunnel syndrome and some incredulous toss-away lines suggesting the earliest phone sex call, and the film seems to be covering too much ground with too much predictability.
Performances are fine, as is the photography by Sean Bobbitt. Should you catch the film somewhere down the road, do watch the end credits for an amusing montage on the history of the vibrator through the ages.
It’s the writing that sinks “Hysteria,” and there’s no machine that can alleviate that.