Business as Pleasure: Hysteria’s star is the vibrator.
Business as Pleasure: Hysteria’s star is the vibrator.

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Hysteria is a period piece set in London in 1880. Its characters are well-dressed and eloquent; its tone is witty and genteel. And its plot concerns…the invention of the vibrator. Odds bodkins!

This featherweight and swiftly paced comedy, directed by Tanya Wexler from a script by first-time screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, stars Hugh Dancy as Mortimer Granville. He’s a young doctor, and a less-than-employable one thanks to his frequent clashes with old-fashioned internists who don’t believe in newfangled ideas like germ theory. Mortimer eventually lands a position assisting one Robert Darlymple (Jonathan Pryce), a doctor who specializes in treating women for “hysteria,” which he defines as “the plague of our time” that stems from an “overactive uterus.” His patients complain of depression, or homicidal thoughts, or a too-robust sex drive. Hysteria, hysteria, hysteria.

And his treatment? Er, he gets ’em off. With his hand. After an undefined period of “vulva massage”—basically, as long as it takes—the women leave flushed and much happier than when they walked in the door. (“Tally ho! Tally ho!” one of his more senior patients cries out during a moment.) Darlymple is, not shockingly, quite busy, and his appointment book is threatening to burst when the handsome Mortimer starts clocking in. His popularity offers Mortimer more than a steady paycheck and a place to stay, however. Darlymple is thinking about retiring and wants to pass along his practice. He’d also like a suitable husband for Emily (Felicity Jones), his porcelain-skinned and accomplished daughter, who likes Mortimer just fine. It’d be the perfect situation—if it weren’t for Mortimer’s severe hand cramps.

The, um, thrust of the plot is the reality-inspired advent of the vibrator, but the Dyers don’t leave it at that. They shade the story with a healthy heaping of suffragettism, primarily in the person of Charlotte Darlymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the doctor’s other daughter. Charlotte is a hothead (“Does she slam every door?” Mortimer asks) who runs a charity in a bad part of town. Her father doesn’t approve, and therefore Mortimer won’t donate his time to help the less fortunate when she asks. What a jerk! she thinks. How unforgiving! he harrumphs. Geez, do you think these two kids will ever get together?

The ideas that a woman might go to college, work outside of the home, and elect not to marry if she so chooses are sometimes wedged into the script with a sledgehammer—particularly in the film’s final chapters—but they don’t distract from the story’s real star, which Mortimer invents with the help of his dandyish, technology-enthusiast friend Edmund (Rupert Everett). (When Mortimer describes his new job, Edmund responds, “How ghastly for you!”) Nor do any agendas dampen the script’s humor, which the cast handles nimbly: Everett, even in his small role, is a highlight, and Dancy, for maybe the first time in his big-screen career, is entertaining rather than irritating. Gyllenhaal’s character is as written more strident than the others, but even Charlotte gets to be charming.

The best, though, might be Darlymple’s patients, who pursue their prescribed method of treatment with not a bit of embarrassment. Hysteria approaches its subject in the same matter-of-fact way—as an adult comedy, with assured laughs instead of teenage giggles.