Like the inventors of the vibrator it depicts, "Hysteria" really aims to please. And like an inattentive lover displaced by the sexual aid, the film never quite satisfies.
True to the title, there are a few hysterically funny moments as a couple of Victorian-era British doctors and an amateur inventor stumble into the creation of a mechanical device to pleasure women. Yet despite the novel premise, "Hysteria" feels as though it's going through the motions as the filmmakers strain to deliver one of those blithe little costume charmers that can rouse art-house audiences to ecstasy.
The fictionalized story built around Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who patented an electric massager around 1880, is choked with clichés playing the era's prim and proper morality against progressive, freethinking ideals that would take hold in the coming decades.
Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer are so determined to hammer modern social values onto their 19th century story that they create a movie of cardboard extremities. That leaves Dancy and co-stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce and Felicity Jones either standing stiffly upright in drawing-room restraint or quaking and spouting on a soapbox, with little room in the middle for them to behave like real people.
Dancy's Mortimer is a modern man of science, continually losing jobs as he preaches such concepts as hand-washing to kill germs to bosses who still think leeches and a good blood-letting are all it takes to cure patients.
Then he lands a cushy position as assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Price), who specializes in manipulating a woman's uterus to produce "paroxysms" — the release of nervous tension to treat a catch-all disorder known as hysteria that includes such symptoms as depression, anxiety, contentiousness and just about anything else deemed unbecoming in females.
Mortimer is immediately attracted to Dalrymple's demure and prudish daughter Emily (Jones) and shocked at the behavior of his other daughter, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who campaigns for women's rights and runs a center to help feed and educate the poor.
Charlotte's ahead of her time, Emily's rooted in hers, and Mortimer's stuck in between. Guess which sister his 21st century puppetmasters will steer him toward.
The utter predictability of "Hysteria" is punched up only by its amusing story line as Mortimer learns that it's hard work massaging women's privates all day. His career threatened because of chronic hand cramps, Mortimer and wealthy pal Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who dabbles in new gadgets, turn an electric feather duster into an early prototype of the vibrator.
The tests they and Dalrymple conduct are hilarious, a few minutes of laughs that are almost worth the price of a ticket by themselves.
The rest of "Hysteria" is a snoozer by comparison, the characters flat, their relationships ordinary. Dancy, Jones and Pryce are dull, while Gyllenhaal plays the spitfire with far too much spit, thumping the other characters and the audience over the head with her do-gooder crusading.
They're just not a believable bunch. That leaves a nice opening for perpetual scene-stealer Everett to dominate his few moments of screen time with wry wit and solid laughs. He's no more believable than the rest, but at least he's consistently entertaining.
Director Wexler, who previously made the low-budget films "Finding North" and "Ball in the House," re-creates the costumes and trappings of the era nicely, but she stuffs the corsets and carriages with either Victorian stick figures or thoroughly modern people out of step with the story.
There's no Big O to this origin story of the vibrator. Just little oohs and aahs here and there that add up to some tickling, fleeting moments of pleasure.
"Hysteria," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for sexual content. Running time: 95 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.