Hysteria is actually not even close to being as embarrassingly bad as some of its advertisements may suggest. It is, in stereotypical British fashion, actually very restrained, only barely scandalous. The majority of the actual humor in the film is provided by the absurd, backward setting the characters live in, and does provide some food for thought – even if it is only of the limited, retrospective, “look how we believed crazy things” variety.
The main character, the fictional character Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), is in his own estimation, a voice of reason in a time of scientific denial. He finds himself being thrown out of several hospital jobs due to his belief in hygiene and germs. The only job he finds himself capable of getting, then, is in a clinic that treats female hysteria – a catch-all term for depression, anger, or rebellion of any sort in women. The mode of treatment is that of “vulvular stimulation”, which his employer (Jonathan Pryce) confidently tells him has nothing at all to do with sex at all. Finding the work interesting, yet hard, Dr. Granville quickly develops wrist pains due to the nature of the manual labor, and seeks an alternative in the form of a small electrical, vibrating “massager”, if you will. This new invention takes off as women of London flood to his employer’s door to be relieved of their supposed hysteria.
The other part of the story is that of Maggie Gyllehnall’s Charlotte Dalrymple – a woman with a bleeding heart, spending her time trying to help those less fortunate (and in particular, downtrodden, cast out women). She is the daughter of Dr. Granville’s employer, being treated as the black sheep of the family due to her refusal to submit to Victorian ideals of propriety. During her encounters with Mortimer, she is initially hostile, but soon warms up to him due to his willingness to provide medical assistance to her friends.
This feminist tale is at the very least interesting, if not at all profound. True, it suffers from all the typical trappings of the romantic comedy. Those elements ultimately come off as a necessary price to pay to make this period drama in the Hollywood system, which of course is regrettable. The commendable thing is that the fictionalized story of the invention of the vibrator is not scandalized. It instead is turned into a story of female liberation, which is a valid point of view, and one which deserves an audience. The problem is that due to the unfortunate marketing of the movie, the audience will most likely overlap more with that of the American Pie franchise, which will not find the movie nearly titillating enough; whereas the more serious audiences will find a lack of serious consideration of the societal issues the film brushes up against.