Featuring Hugh Dancy in yet another frock coat and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a smudge-cheeked social worker, "Hysteria" may sound like the movie version of a Jane Austen novel you somehow missed. Not quite. It's based on the life of Mortimer Granville, the doctor who popularized the electric massager. You know -- the personal kind.
That makes "Hysteria," set in 19th-century London, the rare period piece that asks what was really bustling under all those bustles. The movie also makes all the right noises about female sexual liberation. But its good intentions are undermined by sniggering jokes about Granville's invention and a near-Victorian double standard about who would use such a thing -- odd, coming from a woman director, Tanya Wexler.
It's certainly fun to marvel at a clueless era in which women who suffered from hysteria -- a mythical diagnosis that persisted into the 20th century -- allowed male doctors to manually stimulate them to, er, catharsis. Dancy plays Granville, a young practitioner who gives his aching wrists a break by inventing the mechanical "paroxysmator." It's a hit, as you know.
It certainly liberates Granville, but doesn't do much for women (aside from the obvious). Granville's two love interests -- Felicity Jones as good-girl Emily and Gyllenhaal as her freethinking sister, Charlotte -- don't get anywhere near his device. It's used mostly on homely older ladies and one lowly prostitute, and all are mocked for their moans. Says one satisfied customer: "You're gonna need a bigger appointment book."
The fine cast, including Jonathan Pryce as a priggish doctor and a very funny Rupert Everett as a louche aristocrat, lend "Hysteria" more dignity and class than it earns. The movie may break new ground for a stuffy genre, but it's also guilty of snickering up its ruffled sleeve.
PLOT In 1880, a young London doctor helps invent the personal electric massager. Yes, that kind. RATING R (sexual themes)
BOTTOM LINE A racier-than-usual period-piece, though its message of sexual liberation is undermined by sniggering jokes and subconscious double standards.