From the outset, Hysteria exhibits a winking “Can you actually believe this?!” attitude. After opening with the familiar “This film is based on actual events,” it tacks on a “Really” to counteract any skeptics in the audience. And yet this exact attitude gives the film a markedly unbelievable feel.
Hugh Dancy comfortably steps into the role of Mortimer Granville, an outspokenly idealistic, yet awkwardly uptight doctor stuck in an old-fashioned world of medicine still practicing the use of leeches and tonics. After getting fired from his position at the hospital for speaking out in favor of germ theory, Granville finds himself thrust into the role of assistant to Jonathan Pryce’s Dr. Robert Dalrymple, a doctor who treats female hysteria through vaginal massage. Many montages later, Granville invents the electric vibrator, due to a hand injury sustained from masturbating too many women. Hijinks ensue.
Shoehorned into this (most undoubtedly fictionalized) historical account of the first sex toy is a trite romantic comedy love-triangle plot. Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal portray Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters, Emily and Charlotte, respectively. Emily is his proper young daughter, devoted to the idea of being a lady. Charlotte is the manic-pixie-dream girl devoted to making men crazy, yet in that “lovable” way these romantic comedies continue to shove down our throats. Granville pursues Emily, believing he can have a full life taking over Dalrymple’s medical practice and having a dutiful wife. But he soon finds himself drawn to Charlotte’s brazen attitude and ideals.
Hysteria gets decent performances out of Dancy, Gyllenhaal, and Pryce, as well as Rupert Everett as Granville’s old friend and collaborator, Edmund St. John-Smythe. Yet the characters, dialogue, and, most of all, plot never reach anything higher than cloyingly cute.