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'Hysteria' review: Learning feels so good

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

May 24, 2012

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*** (out of four)

As “Hysteria” begins, onscreen text informs us, “This story is based on true events. Really.” Indeed, what follows may be surprising to many who live in a world in which sex toys—from vibrators to replicas of Jenna Jameson’s vagina—are widely available.

Based on Dr. Mortimer Granville’s (Hugh Dancy) invention of the vibrator for the purpose of healing, not pleasure, “Hysteria” exudes a classy spunk without ever coming fully alive. In 1880 London, Granville takes on the task of giving women “the treatment” after he grows disillusioned with work at the Winchester Hospital, where his superior perceives germ theory as “poppycock.” In private practice under the guidance of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), Granville’s research consists of women with their ankles in the air, screaming “Tally Ho!” in ecstasy as the doctors marvel at how a little “good, steady pressure” calms their supposedly disabling condition of distracting thoughts and, uh, an “overactive uterus.”

Director Tanya Wexler and writers Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer err in neglecting to depict more of women’s oppression in this era, telling instead of showing the misery of an unsatisfying home life both inside and outside the bedroom. That doesn’t diminish a handful of laughs and a story about a revolution that seems to have occurred almost by accident. (Somewhere Trey Parker and Matt Stone are grinning that they got to the title “Orgazmo” first.)

As a bonus, “Hysteria” offers a rather nice subplot in Granville’s relationship with his boss’ lovely, obedient daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and her strong, opinionated sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), which differentiates infatuation from love without condescending to anyone. These days, pleasure isn’t as much of a mystery as it used to be, but the dynamics that make a relationship right or wrong will always remain an enigma to unravel.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais