Boy, people sure were dumb in the 1880s, huh? That’s the major takeaway from Hysteria, a broad period comedy that squanders a fascinating subject—the invention of the vibrator—by refusing to see it from anything other than a modern, winking perspective. Hugh Dancy stars as a young doctor who gets drummed out of hospital after hospital for being too beholden to modern methods of germ-prevention, before he comes into the employ of Jonathan Pryce, who has a thriving practice treating “hysterical” women by massaging their genitals until their “uteruses properly realign.” Before long, Dancy begins courting Pryce’s younger daughter Felicity Jones, though he’s more captivated by her older sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, a feminist and socialist who runs a cash-poor mission for the indigent. And, not incidentally, Dancy also has a rich, gay best friend (played by Rupert Everett, naturally) who dabbles in inventing.
How will Gyllenhaal keep her mission afloat? How will Dancy continue in the uterus-realignment business when it makes his wrist hurt? Hysteria connects the dots in wholly expected ways, smirking all the way at the era of leeches and phrenology. As money woes, physical ailments, and the prevailing social attitudes about sex and class begin to put the squeeze on these characters, director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer resolve the tension the easy way, pushing all the expected buttons. Granted, there’s something satisfying about the way the pieces of the plot all fit together, and at least Hysteria is light of spirit and not tongue-cluckingly judgmental (much). But Wexler and company could’ve said a little more about how the pursuit of cutting-edge science leads down some blind alleys, and a lot more about the sexual habits of Victorians. Instead, they settle for cheap laughs and condescension. This is one of those movies where if there’s a pile of horseshit on the ground, you can be sure that some finely attired gentleman will step in it.