Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were biopics about Industrial Revolution heroes like Edison and medical pioneers like Pasteur and Ehrlich, but the old studios missed the story about the confluence of medicine and technology: The invention of the vibrator to treat “hysteria” (a word derived from the Greek for “uterus”), a catchall diagnosis in the sexually repressive Victorian Era for women who were crabby from lack of a good pounding. (Think of it as the 19th century’s version of PMS.)
In the new comedy of mores Hysteria, young, idealist physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, finally showing a nimble openness on screen) is recruited by an overworked “ladies’ doctor” (Jonathan Pryce) to — and they never say this — masturbate his patients into passivity. This doesn’t sit well with the older doctor’s liberated elder daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), though it seems fine to his younger phrenology-educated girl (Felicity Jones), who hopes to marry Mortimer. You know that’s not how things are going to turn out.
Remarkably, a comedy about the creation of the electric dildo isn’t an original idea; Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room (recently staged by Kitchen Dog Theater) traipsed the same ground, with a more farcical mentality. But both work as pieces of feminism wrapped up in a corset: Women need to control their own bodies. (I imagine Rick Santorum passing out within watching the first 10 minutes of this movie; that’s nice.)
The tone of Hysteria, though, is slightly at odds with its message; it’s a jaunty romance at heart. This makes it feel less “serious” than, say, how James Ivory or David Lean might have handled the same material. But with Dancy, Gyllenhaal’s fresh-scrubbed suffragette and especially the languorously witty Ruper- Everett as Mortimer’s gay best friend (and the actual inventor of the “personal massager”) in top form … well, best to just lay back and enjoy the inevitable.
Two and a half stars. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 1, 2012.