A period piece-romantic comedy might sound like a match made in heaven, if costumes and simulated swooning are your thing.

But most rom-coms are mindless exercises, lacking any real insight on love, sex and relationships. And few period pieces give any real historical context or background, besides the historical nick-nacks in the background.

Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria” is not the cure-all to these genre foibles. But it’s the injection of history that makes this flick both entertaining and noteworthy.

Hugh Dancy plays young Doctor Granville in Victorian London, who’s grown tired of the antiquated medical practices of leech-attaching, blood-letting and tonic-prescribing. After losing several jobs due to his fanatical adherence to the new-fangled “germ” theory (wait a sec…invisible things called “bacteria” make us ill?), he finds himself with a lucrative opportunity at a posh woman’s clinic.

These patients suffer from “hysteria”, a medical diagnosis commonly thrown at any woman’s health issue in that era. Seasoned Doctor Dalrymple (played by the great Jonathan Pryce) attends to women by performing massages to relax his patients – massages that nowadays are understood to sexually satisfy women, but back then were not seen as sexual…since a woman could only be sexually satisfied by the internal presence of a man, of course.

Dalrymple takes Granville under his wing and roof, and even eyes him for a potential suitor for his youngest daughter (Felicity Jones). But Dalrymple’s rebellious, humanitarian daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins to catch Granville’s eye, and eventually his ethics.

Granville’s heavy client load, however, gets the best of his massage hand, leaving him unable to satisfy the afflicted women properly. He turns to his oddball inventor friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), who’s handheld electric duster prototype may be the time and labor saving device needed to get Granville back into business.

Director Tanya Wexler stretches her low budget to the max and makes a very convincing period piece. But the fact that this depiction of the invention of the electric vibrator is rooted in truth, and these hilariously misguided medical practices existed makes “Hysteria” captivating and even innovative as a romantic comedy.

The medical massage scenes themselves are presented in the tamest way possible, but yet are still somewhat shocking, initially. How many Hollywood movies simulate female masturbation and orgasms, save “When Harry Met Sally” – which then only depicts a fake orgasm? In this sense alone, “Hysteria” could be classified as a revolutionary mainstream film.

Click here to read my interview with “Hysteria” director Tanya Wexler.

-Steve Swanson

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