'Hysteria': Light and larky costume comedy

If a woman in Victorian times felt faint or depressed, agitated or anxious, if she was irritable or irrational, would not eat, or ate too much, then the source of her woe was simple: female hysteria.

A once common medical diagnosis, it also supplies the premise from which Hysteria - a light and larky costume comedy - embarks. Based on true events (what movie these days isn't?), it is the story of the invention of the vibrator. Yes, the sex toy, developed as a clinical instrument to treat women suffering from the aforementioned ailments.

Directed by Tanya Wexler, from a screenplay by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer (based on an idea from Philadelphia Daily News columnist Howard Gensler), Hysteria takes place in London at a time of enormous change: The telephone allowed people to communicate in new, immediate ways, the bicycle offered a liberating new mode of transport, machinery was changing the course of industry, and medicine . . . well, medicine was still mired in the past. Leeching, amputation, cure-all tonics, and pills.

But the young physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) will have none of it. Forward thinking and up to speed on the latest medical science, Granville finds himself booted from one hospital to the next. And then, he lands at the busy clinic of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a "specialist" in women's medicine who spends most of his office time providing pelvic massages for his "hysterical" patients.

Moving into the Dalrymple house, Granville becomes his protégé, learning the, er, hands-on techniques ("a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time") and getting to know Dalrymple's bright, charming daughter (Felicity Jones). The work is constant, and physically wearing.

But Granville's old pal, an eccentric inventor played with eccentric inventiveness by Rupert Everett, has developed an electric feather duster. A lightbulb moment ensues. Before you can let loose a squeal of ecstasy, the feather duster device has been adapted for another use. Dalrymple and Granville's patients - young, old, and in between - fill the waiting room, file out the door and down the street.

Hysteria is a romantic comedy, not an erotic one, and while Jones' Emily may seem the perfect mate for Dancy's Mortimer, it is, in fact, her older sister - an upstart suffragette who runs a cash-starved clinic for the poor - who is fated for Granville, and vice versa.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, riding a bicycle and a British accent (both somewhat wobbly), is Charlotte the firebrand feminist. There are misunderstandings and fracases to work through, of course, but eventually things work out. Good vibrations all around.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.



Directed by Tanya Wexler. With Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce, Tobias Menzies, Gemma Jones. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 35 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sexual content).