Hysteria - Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy
Hysteria - Social justice crusader Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hopes to enlist the support of conservative Dr Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) © 2010 Hysteria Films Ltd

This delightfully naughty-but-nice romantic comedy has a great cast, a sparkling screenplay and an attractive period-piece setting. Made in 2010 and being released the same week as a certain high-firepower blockbuster, Hysteria is the perfect alternative for filmgoers more interested in an amusing courtship than a well-armed Battleship.

Hugh Dancy stars as Mortimer Granville, an idealistic doctor in 1880 England who is progressive enough to believe in new-fangled notions about germs and the benefits of washing one’s hands. After being fired by several less forward-thinking physicians, he ends up employed by the dedicated but overworked Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in the female ailment known as hysteria.

Healthy Horniness!

The movie’s overriding joke is that even though the treatment for hysteria involves bringing patients to “paroxysm” through vigorous pelvic massage, Granville and Dalrymple are unable to see that this “plague of our time” is nothing more than perfectly healthy horniness. Dalrymple also dismisses the notion that the “nervous-system relief” he provides is in any way sexual, even when he sees his patients gasping in the throes of ecstasy. The handsome Dr. Granville soon attracts enough new business to fill the office’s waiting room and appointment book.

Hysteria - Sheridan Smith
Hysteria – Maid and former prostitute Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith) is the first test subject for a revolutionary new device © 2010 Hysteria Films Ltd

If that set-up sounds slightly smutty, the movie’s charm is the way director Tanya Wexler manages to make the material more farcical than filthy. Dr Dalrymple’s high-spirited daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a feminist crusader for social justice, is the only person who acknowledges the trivial nature of her father’s vocation. She’s also the one responsible for getting her father to hire an ostensibly rehabilitated prostitute named Molly (Sheridan Smith) as the household’s maid. Smith’s portrayal of the saucy redhead, nicknamed Molly the Lolly because of a certain oral ability, is simultaneously sexy and laugh-out-loud funny.

Other characters include angelic English rose Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) as Dr Dalrymple’s timidly genteel daughter Emily, and the effortlessly charming Rupert Everett as Dr Granville’s wealthy and aristocratic friend Edmund St John-Smythe. When the physical demands of Dr Granville’s job take their toll his painfully cramped hand, he adapts amateur inventor Edmund’s prototype for an electric feather duster into the world’s first vibrator. Their first extremely satisfied test subject is Molly, who is told the delightful device does not yet have a name. “Better think of something quick,” she says, “so a girl knows what to ask for.”

Charlotte’s charity mission

A subplot about Charlotte’s efforts to support a charity mission for the poor that her father opposes is at odds with the airy lightness of the rest of the movie, especially when potentially dire consequences result. Also, the resolution of whether Dr. Granville will end up with the innocently irresistible Emily or the worldly wise Charlotte may divide audiences. All of the elements are in place for an amusing ending that would have resulted in two unexpected pairings instead of one obvious one. (And screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer don’t have the excuse that they were restricted by actual events, because vibrator inventor Dr Granville’s life and relationships are entirely fictionalized here.)

Even with those flaws, Hysteria is an unusual treat that’s just the right amount of risqué.

[Rating: 3.5 stars, out of 5]

Hysteria is released theatrically in US and Canada on Friday May 18, 2012. In Australia it will be released on July 12, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.