Movie review: 'Hysteria' hums with good vibrations

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"Hysteria" is blessed with hindsight as characters speak and react as if they knew how history would record their times and those to follow.

An old-fashioned physician lectures a young upstart in 1880 London: "Germ theory is poppycock. Now stop speaking of it -- you're frightening the patients."


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce.
  • Rating: R for sexual content.

A firebrand feminist: "I know by the time I'm gone, women will have the vote, equal education and rights over their own bodies."

A wealthy Brit and technology buff with one of the first telephones in England: "Imagine if everyone had one." (He doesn't go so far as to suggest they might be mobile, though.)

"Hysteria" was inspired by the 1883 patent of the first electric vibrator by physician Joseph Mortimer Granville, here played by Hugh Dancy. Intended for muscular relief, it soon was used to treat the catch-all female ailment "hysteria."

Husband-and-wife writers Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer fictionalize Granville's life, giving him romantic attractions to his physician-boss's two very different daughters, a comic case of carpal tunnel and a choice between comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable -- with intimate massages that produce paroxysms. In today's parlance, orgasms.

It's a time of Victorian prudishness when Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a specialist in women's medicine, presides over a thriving practice treating hysteria. He calls it "the plague of our time," affecting half of the women in London.

In its milder manifestations it turns up as nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia and anxiety, and he treats it by relieving tensions in the womb with manual manipulation. He needs, literally, another pair of hands and hires Granville.

The younger physician starts to court the elder doc's demure daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), even as he is drawn to her vexing, volatile older sister, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She runs an East End settlement house where she tries to help poor women and ailing children and stave off debt collectors.

Charlotte scornfully tells Mr. Dancy's character that he leads a silly, comfortable little life. When he adapts an invention by a wealthy eccentric friend (Rupert Everett), it seems as though he's about to get everything he wanted in life -- until he must examine his feelings about hysteria and women in general and a pair named Dalrymple.

"Hysteria," directed by Tanya Wexler, is a comedy about more than just the invention of the device that Samantha would talk openly about on "Sex and the City" a century later. It's about a society on the brink of change, the treatment and mistreatment of women and the poor, and doctor-patient situations ripe for laughter.

Ms. Gyllenhaal is especially luminous as the fiery Charlotte while Ms. Jones had a far better showcase in "Like Crazy." Mr. Dancy plays it straight, in keeping with the understated tone of the movie that could have been a Victorian women gone wild comedy.

Instead it's a demure costume drama in which everyone keeps their clothes on, including the courtly celebrity who makes a surprise appearance as the credits scroll.

Opens today at the Manor and both Destinta locations.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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