★★ (out of 5 stars)
Director Tanya Wexler's Hysteria, a rom-com historical revision set in late-19th century London about the invention of the vibrator, actually does a great service to its male audience: It allows us to experience a fraction of the intense frustration felt so strongly by the women of that era, enough so that it was even given a bogus pseudo-scientific diagnosis: hysteria.
According to this thoroughly unsatisfying tale (co-written by three men), the so-called hysteria, said at the time to afflict nearly a quarter of the city's female population, was simply an excuse for wealthy widows to let a doctor get them off while they go googly-eyed and sing opera. But what of the poor doctor's tired hand? Such is the paper-thin, insulting dilemma facing Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a handsome young man hired exclusively to masturbate the grateful clients of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). He's promptly set up with Dalrymple's prim daughter, Emily, with the promise of taking over the patriarch's estate and practice.
When Granville's carpel tunnel gets him fired and, presumably, ousted from Emily's future, he teams up with an inventor pal (Rupert Everett) who believes he has an electric solution to Granville's manual problem. And so the vibrator was born.
But wait – that can't be the whole movie, can it? Of course not! For practically no reason at all, the newly famous, re-hired and re-engaged Granville decides he's in love with Emily's Shrew of a sister, Charlotte (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with the giddy freedom that comes from a great actor knowing full well they've signed on to a stinker). Unlike the virtuous Emily, Charlotte is seen by her family as a wild card. Why? Oh, she's always going on about "charity" this and "equality" that. Silly girl.
Does Granville realize he's helped create an inherently liberating product and that's why he's drawn to Charlotte? Maybe he knows deep down that his specialty is bologna and hopes this other sister might help open his mind? Whatever the case, this movie isn't interested in anything but rudimentary romance and an ill-fitting, peppy tone out of step with its subject – a shameful historical footnote in which women were locked up, violated and driven to breakdowns, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. (Thanks for the heads-up, American Horror Story!).
Making matters worse, Hysteria insists on cramming in as many painfully obvious winks to the modern audience as possible: Charlotte only gives Granville the time of day when he says he's in favor of hand-washing (OK, that actually was a hotly contested idea at the time), and one character wonders aloud whether telephones will catch on. (Total bullshit.)
By the time Hysteria devolves into an absurd courtroom climax, it's clear that it's far too late to hope for satisfaction.