HOLLYWOOD—As everyone must know by now, novelty sales is the portion of the adult entertainment industry that's suffered the least from the current Great Recession, but leave it to Hollywood to make a movie—and a comedy at that—about the origins of that most popular of sex toys, the vibrator.
Hysteria, whose San Francisco premier was sponsored in part by the Good Vibrations store chain, stars Hugh Dancy as Mortimer Granville, a young '80s doctor—1880s, that is—fired from the hospital at which he worked for committing that gravest of sins, changing the bandage on a woman's foot. Seems the hospital's head considers the concept of germs to be "just a theory," and prescribes using leeches to suck a pint of blood out of the woman, since "that's all she needs." Well, that and one of his useless "miracle pills."
Somewhat depressed, Granville heads back to the flat he shares with Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), the son of the couple who raised Granville after his parents died. St. John-Smythe is what we'd now call a "geek": He's fascinated by anything electrical, and owns London's second telephone, which he uses to call up the only other phone owner in town, even though he doesn't even know the guy. His latest "invention" is an electric feather-duster, for which Granville sees no earthly use.
But Granville's one of those dedicated medical men who truly wants to help the sick and injured, so he begins making the rounds of London doctors who might want to employ his services. After seeing a number of quacks, he finally meets up with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose practiced is dedicated to curing women of "mild hysteria."
Full-blown hysteria, Dr. D explains, is a horrible affliction requiring that its sufferer be consigned to a "mental hospital" (i.e.) and given a hysterectomy, since the "disease" is a symptom of an "overactive uterus." But mild hysteria can be treated with an office visit that requires the afflicted woman to lie on the exam table with her feet in the stirrups and allow the doc to stimulate her genitals manually until she reaches "paroxysm," which most of us now know as orgasm. And afterwards, the woman's depression or anxiety or nervousness seems to be gone, so everyone's happy.
The practice is thriving, with some women needing treatment several times per week, so Granville joins the firm, in part because he's attracted to Dr. D's daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), though he doesn't find out until a bit later that the angry woman who disrupted the waiting room with a feminist diatribe when he first entered is Dr. D's other daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, affecting a top-notch British accent). Charlotte's a "ne'er-do-well" who operates a sort of daycare center/school/free clinic on London's poor East Side. (And let's not forget Dr. D's maid, Molly [Sheridan Smith, looking very much like a young Stockard Channing], an ex-prostitute—or maybe not quite so "ex"—who continually offers Granville cheap blowjobs.)
But Granville's happy just to be curing several people each day—as Dr. D boasts, he hasn't had a death yet!—and courting Emily by night.. until he comes down with what appears to be carpal tunnel syndrome, which has him lacing his wrist and forearm into a sort of corset, squeezing a rubber ball whenever his hand isn't otherwise occupied, and plunging the hand into ice water before each genital manipulation.
But sadly, all that fails when Granville tries to treat Mrs. Castellari (Kim Criswell). She shrieks at his cold hand, and when he switches to his right hand—something we figure he should have done weeks previously—she fails to respond to his ministrations even after nearly an hour of clit rubbing.
It's this and other recent failures that cause Dr. D to let Granville go, and once again, he winds up at St. John-Smythe's apartment. But as Granville switches on the electric feather-duster, its vibrations make his cramped hand feel better, so he and St. John-Smyth set about making a small "electro-massager," which they test on Molly, to everyone's delight—especially Molly's. That gets Granville back into Dr. D's good graces—and soon becomes the rage of upper-class London.
The success of the invention, not to mention the practice, earns Granville big bucks, so he and Emily decide to get engaged at a huge party, which Charlotte also attends—but when her care center's manager shows up at the party, telling of having been beaten and robbed by a pair of thugs, it's revealed that the loan Charlotte got from a rich couple has been sold to her father, and it was he who sent the ruffians to collect the balance due. And when the cops come to drag the manager out of the party, Charlotte slugs one of them—and promptly gets arrested and charged with being "hysterical."
Of course, it's up to Granville to save the day, and readers can probably guess most of the rest of the story, which is told with an exceedingly light touch—but it's a topic that really begs for a more in-depth telling, hopefully from at least a partial women's perspective.
"For a film that’s so up in women’s business, it’s surprising how far it gets from putting an authentic woman on the screen," wrote reviewer Alison Gang. "The patients vary only by their costumes and orgasmic vocal stylings. Charlotte is a self-righteous feminist with outspoken views on female sexuality that are about 80 years before their time. Her sister is the ideal Victorian lady. For good measure, there’s Molly the maid (Sheridan Smith), a reformed prostitute who is more than happy to offer up her sexual services just for the fun of it."
Still, director Tanya Wexler does a creditable job of weaving feminist and socialist themes into the comedy while staying somewhat true to the actual events, even with some major inaccuracies. For instance, Granville didn't actually want his invention used by women, "advocating for its use on male skeletal muscles only," according to a timeline of "Female Hysteria and the Sex Toys Used to Treat It" created by Maya Dusenbery for Mother Jones magazine. And who knew that the first battery to power the new invention weighed 40 pounds?
But the mere fact that a Hollywood studio would allow half a dozen or so women being shown having orgasms on screen in an R-rated movie has got to be something worth celebrating!