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The stereotype of Victorian-era Brits as the most sexually repressed people in the history of humanity will not be laid to rest by Hysteria, an amusing comedy that doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have with a promising premise. For centuries, various physical and emotional problems in women were considered by doctors to be the result of a diseased or dislocated uterus (the Greek word for which is “hystera”). A recommended cure was for the medical professional to induce a “paroxysm” via manual and digital massage of the pelvic area. In other words—well, if you don’t know what all this is you’re probably too young to be reading this. Ask your mother in a few years.

Hugh Dancy stars as Mortimer Granville, a doctor who has been finding it hard keeping a job: his elders care neither for his insistence that germs cause illness nor his ridicule of the use of leeches to bleed away bad blood. He finally lands a job with the staid Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who is doing a booming business treating cases of hysteria. Granville exhibits a good feel for the work (sorry, couldn’t resist), so much that he develops a nasty case of what we might now call carpal tunnel syndrome. Confiding his problems to his step-brother Edmund (Rupert Everett, very funny under a bushy beard), the two invent a new device: a handheld motor that can cause steady and intense localized vibrations.

In other words—certainly not his—the first vibrator.

This is all true, more or less, and Mortimer’s invention is soon a big hit. His personal life, not so much. Expected to marry Dalrymple’s demure younger daughter, Mortimer instead finds himself attracted to her old sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a suffragist who works with the poor and is not insulted when someone calls her a socialist. Her refusal to accept a woman’s proper place leads to a charge of hysteria against her, one that could land her either in prison or an insane asylum.

With a tone of suppressed naughtiness similar to some of Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s post-Monty Python scripts, Hysteria has fun with the notion of middle-aged women enjoying what neither they nor their doctors recognize as orgasms. Later it’s suitably outraged at the way a bold woman is treated when she tries to do good for the oppressed. There’s plenty of material here for both sexual satire and historical tragedy, but it’s more than scripters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer are able to exploit in a single short film. It’s a movie that pleases but leaves you wanting more.

Watch the trailer for Hysteria

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