However it's handled, the story of the invention of the electric vibrator cries out for more stimulating treatment than "Hysteria," a film left wanting for a tone and a surer sense of period.
The stylistically uncertain romantic comedy stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as the late 19th century social reformer daughter of London's (fictional) Dr. Dalrymple, played by Jonathan Pryce. The doctor's successful treatment of society ladies diagnosed, willy-nilly and with extreme cluelessness, with various forms of hysteria has led to a thriving practice and extremely strong word-of-mouth. Dalrymple has enough business, in fact, to hire an assistant, a character inspired by the historical record: Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy).
He proves a dab hand with the so-called paroxysm cure. "First, do no harm" is right! True to his times, though, Granville, like Dalrymple, considers the treatment to be a purely clinical exercise. Meantime Granville plans to marry Dalrymple's other daughter (Felicity Jones), a more classically Victorian model than her "Major Barbara"-style sister, the one who gets all the knowing zingers.
As "Hysteria" nudges Dancy's and Gyllenhaal's characters together, by way of periodic spats and verbal sparring matches, the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer imagines how, precisely, Granville's gadget freak pal (played, with extreme broadness, by Rupert Everett) inspired Granville in his "Eureka!" flash: the creation of the electric vibrator. The director of "Hysteria," Tanya Wexler, has some fun with all this, though sensibly she has no interest in burlesquing the subject. The picture's heart belongs to Gyllenhaal's ultra-modern feminist — the enlightened antidote to all the simpy, repressed attitudes swirling around her good works and itchy exasperation.
And that's a considerable part of the problem. This key character doesn't seem like a woman ahead of her own corseted time; rather, especially as Gyllenhaal delivers her, Charlotte is like a time-traveler from a century ahead. You don't believe in her in the context of the film's setting. Also, the movie lacks wit. And the heartbreaking postscript? Playwright Sarah Ruhl just wrote a wonderful theatrical exploration of a similar subject ("In the Next Room or the vibrator play"), and now it'll be a cold day in hell before that one gets the screen adaptation it deserves. You know the rule: only one movie about vibrators and female sexual pleasure per millennium.
'Hysteria' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content)
Running time: 1:35
Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema and Renaissance Place, Highland Park; CineArts6, Evanston