I know feminism and empowered female stories are sometimes lost in the vacuum of male-heavy films dominating Hollywood. But sneaking a feminist message into an already lackluster movie about a male scientist who invents a way to get many off won't solve matters.
In Hysteria, Hugh Dancy stars as Mortimer Granville, a menial 19th century doctor perpetually caught between jobs. That is, until he came across the office of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who gave him his first major break as a doctor assigned to treating women for "hysteria." Hysteria of course being the condition in which a woman is so badly in need of sex, and for whatever reason a man is not in her immediate vicinity.
So by accident he creates the vibrator to help women, er, get there faster without the use of so much fancy handwork on his behalf. But, meanwhile, Mortimer is introduced to Dalrymple's danty yet progressive daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), who should be Mortimer's future wife, if Dalrymple has anything to say about it.
But, instead, Mortimer becomes enamored by the Dalrymple's wild other daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the black sheep of the family who's a real burn-her-bra feminist that never ends a scene without a soapbox monologue. In the least, she's interesting to watch, and even calls out Mortimer for the silliness of his job (after she asks him for a donation to her fledgling makeshift school for the poor). Ironically, Mortime admires Charlotte's balls, and stumbles onto an intellectual love affair with the Dalrymple castoff.
Then the film becomes a weighty feminist cat call between Charlotte running her mouth about being treated unjustly and not taken seriously by her male counterparts who are more comfortable seeing her as hysterical (in the more modern sense here) than the forward-thinking wise young woman with a purpose. The stark contrast between her and her sister comes across as more her being condescending than showing two equally intelligent women.
As a matter of fact, Emily is actually a smart doctor-type in her own right, which is woefully played down a bit in the movie to give way to the absoluteness of her sister. Two women from the same family can't both be ingenious in different ways without causing a rivalry between the two? Do better.
Also, let's not forget, this movie is really about Dr. Granville, which would have made for a far more interesting movie about the vibrator had the film kept on that course and not let itself be hijacked by this forced feminist subplot. The already mediocre movie then turns into two halves of two separate mediocre movies, neither of which is compelling to watch. Even at just 100 minutes, the movie drags on because it never seems to reach either of its points. With Gyllenhaal's clear effort to awaken a sleeping audience with her somewhat zippy one-liners and obvious feisty behavior, the movie still becomes a bland romantic comedy.
Effective acting and Tanya Wexler's direction of a taboo topic (especially given the era in which it's set) cannot save the unbearably choppy and uneven writing of the movie. Those looking for a fun movie about sexual pleasure in the 19th century will not find it here. I'd suggest the more academic but compelling A Dangerous Method.
Hysteria is now in theaters.