Hysteria, a love story about the invention of the modern-day vibrator, should be a fascinating, if not hilarious, film. The setup is ripe: Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy, is a progressive young doctor who accepts a job diagnosing and treating London women who suffer from female hysteria, an epidemic that manifests as everything from epilepsy to boredom, which Dr. Granville treats with relaxing "pelvic massages."
To give you some context, England's Victorian era is remembered as a period of stunning technological advancements (telephones! Bicycles! Electric lightbulbs!), but for women, life was still a hotbed of bleakness. They didn't have the right to vote, sue, or own property. Corsets were still fashionable. Domestic violence was a totally acceptable method of settling household disputes, and women were considered biologically incapable of orgasm, so men weren't duty-bound to grant so much as a cursory finger wag down south.
It's no wonder up to half of all women were thought to suffer from hysteria.
Enter handsome Dr. Granville, who's medicating the problem by doling out hour-long handjobs to bored Victorian housewives (the "pelvic massages" were thought to help realign the uterus, which was the source of hysteria). Sounds exciting, right?
Sadly, Hysteria ranks as the least fun I've ever had with the female orgasm. The film's pacing is clunky, and the characters are thoughtlessly inconsistent. Dr. Granville is introduced as the most progressive doctor in all of London—we see him shunned by colleagues for his enlightened views on using soap to combat germs, in lieu of leeches—and yet this same doctor isn't smart enough to figure out that hysteria, and his job treating it, is a joke.
Of course, there's a love story shoehorned into the script. When he's not handjobbing women, Granville is busy falling in love with his boss's two daughters—a beautifully sedate piano player (Felicity Jones) and a bicycle-riding feminist (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Gyllenhaal gets some credit for being the liveliest thing on-screen throughout the film, but her idealistic depiction of 1880s feminism can't be taken seriously. When she's not out fighting for suffrage, you half expect her to be inventing pants for women and pushing for gay marriage. That, at least, would be stimulating.