Such an atmosphere of good cheer and jolly naughtiness pervades "Hysteria" that it feels almost churlish to mention that the picture has, well, problems. But let's not talk about the problems, not right away. Let's talk about nice things, like that "Hysteria," with its period costumes and English accents, seems like a much better movie than it is.
If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then let's talk about the movie's best virtue: It brings up an aspect of 19th century social history that few people know about, one that is more than just interesting or absurd or titillating, but rather illuminating of an entire era's self-delusion. It's an aspect that tells you volumes about relations between men and women, women's place in society and the witch-doctor aspect of 19th century medicine.
Apparently, in the mid- to late 19th century, women who were feeling depressed or nervous could go to a physician who would bring them to orgasm manually as a treatment for the entirely bogus ailment known as "hysteria." With the coming of electricity, the vibrator was invented, and dedicated doctors would no longer have to end the workday by icing their hands.
In "Hysteria," we meet a man who becomes such a doctor Mortimer Granville (known to history as the inventor of the vibrator). In this fictional presentation, he starts out as an idealistic young physician in 1880, one who notices that the older doctors employing him are killing patients with their complacent disdain for the latest science.
Mortimer is so passionately driven to help people that he keeps getting fired and soon can't work anywhere except as a deputy to a doctor treating "hysteria" in a high-end practice.
And this is where the movie begins to fray at the edges. Having established Mortimer as the smartest and most enlightened young doctor in London, the movie now places the protagonist in a plot mechanism in which he is absolutely required to be one of the most clueless. He has to believe in "hysteria" as a diagnosis and not realize or particularly care that his career has become a joke.
Moreover, he must go from a fervent young man, impassioned by an urgent commitment to the healing power of modern medicine, to a fellow who doesn't know what to do and whose sense has apparently been paralyzed by a desire for wealth and acceptance.
I suppose a screenwriter might defend the character's inconsistency by saying that Mortimer is hampered by the blossoming love he feels for his boss's staid youngest daughter (Felicity Jones). But there's no passion there.
Thus, the movie saddles itself and saddles actor Hugh Dancy with a lead character who cannot act in any decisive way, because to do so would be inconvenient to the story. All the action instead must come from others while he stands there looking stupid the movie's prime mover being Maggie Gyllenhaal as the eldest daughter of Mortimer's boss. She's a burst of light and a walking anachronism, a settlement worker and a feminist, who is certain that someday women will vote because she has a keen sense of the future.
Just for verisimilitude, it might have helped to have this proud feminist occasionally to say something not quite so modern. Perhaps an interest in temperance? Or a commitment to the Salvation Army? By the end, I half expected her to announce support for gay marriage. However, there is no denying that every time Gyllenhaal steps into a frame she takes a sleeping movie and wakes it up.
No wonder that the young doctor should take an interest in her. Alas, by the time Mortimer does, we no longer imagine them as sharing a lust for life, but rather see her as the life essence he needs to prop up his almost-dead self.
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce and Felicity Jones
Director: Tanya Wexler
Rated R (sexual content)