London is a long way from Wisteria Lane, but according to Tanya Wexler's posh comedy Hysteria, the city was crawling with desperate housewives in the late 1800s, all of them believed to be suffering from the titular ailment, which attributed dilemmas like restlessness and sexual dissatisfaction to a wandering uterus. Enter Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London's "leading specialist in women's medicine," whose waiting room is crammed tight with well-dressed society gals aching for the doctor's cure, a thorough vulva massage, which, while producing a toe-curling "paroxysm," expels those troubling concerns and nudges the uterus back into place. "Women can't feel pleasure unless penetrated by the male organ," Dr. Dalrymple assures, and so this offbeat feminist tale sees a powerful man unwittingly liberating half of London's females, all the while thinking his magic touch is one of medical genius. Irony goes a long way in Hysteria, the kind of prim-and-proper taboo film that pairs a walk in the park with a shot of ducks humping. Simple pleasures turn complicated when Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a progressive doctor alienated for his conscience, takes a job as Dr. Dalrymple's assistant, not knowing that his penchant for logic will clash with all those stimulating theories.
The Dalrymple household, where the busy office lies and where Mortimer takes up residence, is a microcosm of degrees of forward-thinking, from the doctors' incidental gender empowerment to the interests of the Dalrymple daughters, who were both raised too curious to suffer from the housewife plight. Emily (Felicity Jones) is a cultural sponge enrapt in the equally ambiguous practice of phrenology, and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a walking glass-ceiling wrecking ball, her rejection of inequality so complete that she sacrifices her family's wealth and comforts to help the unprivileged. Gyllenhaal is blatantly typecast, her aptitude for feminist fireballs evident since she gabbed about Michael Dukakis as the eldest Darko sibling. But it's through no fault of the actress that she was a rather obvious choice, and her work as Charlotte ranks high among her best. In basic terms of technique, her British accent never wavers, and she finds a groove of enthusiasm that's always magnetic and never overcooked. Prone to uncomfortable dinner topics and establishment-testing quips, Charlotte is one of London's few who tags hysteria as bogus, a "catch-all" diagnosis for the fur-clad complainants she quietly disdains. Thus, she's a perfect match for the reluctantly levelheaded Mortimer, who finds himself in need of salvation when a crippling case of carpal tunnel costs him his job.
Hysteria has been sold as a movie about the first vibrator, and though there's a whole lot more tossed into this pot, an electric paroxysm-producer indeed bails Mortimer out of financial and social ruin. A breakthrough on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, Mortimer's buzzing savior was intended as a cleaning device, not quite mastered by the young doc's opportunistic housemate (Rupert Everett). But when it soothes Mortimer's hand pain and nearly spins the head of prostitute-turned-housemaid Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith), a goldmine is born, and hysteria treatment reformed. Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, and Howard Gensler's script ably intertwines a women's film with a risqué slice of history, gliding from Charlotte's arc to a sexual milestone and back again. It falters in that it sees fit to stuff in a complete romance too, forcing the co-leads together with routine tidiness, and in a fashion that never earns the required viewer support. One sees a future for Charlotte and Mortimer, but surely not a future that feels like a screenplay's easiest option. Needless to say, Hysteria's happy ending isn't the type that calls for a cigarette, and it certainly isn't the one the film deserves.