You'd love to applaud Hysteria for the way it encourages female pleasure. But Tanya Wexler's historical farce is so self-congratulatory, it barely allows its audience a few mild, civilized chuckles.
There is some talent here, mostly squandered. Jonathan Pryce steals his scenes as the pompous Victorian doctor Robert Dalrymple, who treats his patients with a method most of us learned at about age 13. This procedure relieves his patients—well-off, middle-aged women—of abdominal discomfort, unwanted thoughts, depression and every other symptom indicated by the term "hysteria."
Dr. Mortimer Granville (the handsome, vacant Hugh Dancy) joins Dalrymple's practice, and starts keeping the company of the doctor's daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Yet Granville is disturbed by the political convictions of Emily's sister Charlotte, a midwife (a robustly miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has no patience for the problems of these well-off bored ladies. Charlotte's main cause is nursing the poor in the East End.
Mortimer is good at his task, arraying the fashionable women on a table, with a fancy, fringed red velvet curtain over their exposed parts. Sadly, the doctor falls victim to carpal tunnel from wanking all of these dames. That's when his wealthy inventor friend Edmund (Rupert Everett) comes up with an electrifying new invention.
Sexy toast-of-the-West-End type Sheridan Smith mugs pleasurably, playing a painted, debauched maid nicknamed "Molly the Lolly." Georgie Glen's shriek of "Tally-ho!" at the capital moment is rich, particularly since she's wearing her Scottish bonnet all through the experience. But director Wexler (Haskell's niece) seems caught in the problem of a film addressing twin evils: poverty and the second-class status of women. It's as if she's unable to take the second one seriously. She can't visualize the sadness of lonely women enough to make the central theme in the film—their climactic moments of happiness—truly ticklish.
'Hysteria' opens Friday, June 15, at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol and Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.