Much of the comic not-so-secret sauce flavoring this genial and mostly entertaining British comedy rises up out of things not stated, elemental forces left unnamed and thus untended: namely, the female orgasm, and processes by which the “hysteria” surrounding it might be dealt with in the repressive atmosphere of Victorian England. What ensues, naturally, is a story and script awash in innuendo, euphemism, and dancing around the libidinal issue. Therein lies the film’s rub, and what fun there is to be had.
In 1880s London, one doctor (Jonathan Pryce) specializes in the time-honored method of specialist massage therapy, to coax these “paroxysmal convulsions,” while our more modern-minded young protagonist Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), eager to bring on the 20th century, conspires with an engineer friend to create the prototype of the vibrator. Based on an actual historical figure, Granville, anxious to move beyond the medical era in which leeches and bleeding are still common practice, accidentally finds himself in the pursuit of feminine stress and frustration relief, via electromechanical ingenuity.
As a progressive-minded idealist championing the poor and challenging her family’s cold and uppity aristocratic attitudes, Maggie Gyllenhaal does a fine job (apart from some wavering accent issues, made more noticeable by her yank in the ranks of her British costars). Her character’s sister, played by Felicity Jones, is an aspiring phrenologist and truer to the Victorian decorum of her father. Meanwhile, our hero’s own seemingly cramped sexuality and romantic life become a secondary plot as he finds himself torn between two sisters. Submerged feelings, it would seem, are embedded in the DNA of this sex comedy without the sex.
Too often during the film, the focus slips and the balance of comedy and drama grows fuzzy, but the game at the core of the operation keeps us tuned in. In essence, Hysteria is a pleasant enough comedy of manners and historical hypocrisy that toys with the juxtaposition of stiff upper-crust British propriety and the underscoring pull of primal, carnal jollies.