Have you ever heard of a Victorian-era London doctor named Mortimer Granville? No? Neither had I -- until Tanya Wexler's heavily fictionalized, historical, romantic-comedy/bio-pic identified him as the inventor of the electric vibrator.
Dapper, mutton-chopped Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a prim but progressive physician, working with social-climbing Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), who theorizes that many of the nervous diseases suffered by culturally repressed, refined women in the late 1800s were imagined and could be clinically relieved by discreetly draped pelvic massages that include therapeutically manipulating their genitalia to induce a paroxysm (a.k.a. an orgasm). Back then, "hysteria" was an all-purpose medical term used to describe many female ailments. As word spreads about their innovative and intensely pleasurable treatments, their medical practice grows. They suffer from inflamed tendons in their arms until they introduce the use of a steampunk stimulator, a revolutionary prototype somewhat accidentally devised by Granville's wealthy, eccentric, socialite friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (scene-stealing Rupert Everett).
While Granville is properly courting Dalymple's timid, obedient, younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), who demurely practices piano and phenology, he's far more intrigued by verbal sparring matches with her feisty older sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an enlightened `feminist' who defiantly works at an East End settlement house for the underprivileged and homeless and never misses an opportunity to speechify.
Opening with the declaration - "This story is based on true events - really" - it's drolly scripted by the husband/wife team Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer and dutifully directed by Tanya Wexler, who delves into primitive medical practices like leeching, bleeding and sea-bathing and the medical establishment's abysmal ignorance about the importance of hospital hygiene. A similarly focused drama, Sara Ruhl's "In the Next Room" or "The Vibrator Play," produced on Broadway in 2009, was wittier, far more stimulating and, therefore, satisfying.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Hysteria" is a strained yet saucy 6, barely skimming the surface of the subject of female sexuality, although the closing credits illustrate the availability of new-and-improved gadgets like the Rabbit and Pocket Rocket.