The mostly true story of the invention of the vibrator, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy, is a pleasant romp through Victorian gynecology and sexual mores.

It has a few laughs, many cringes, and generally affirms the notion that no matter how bad things are today, they are most certainly better than in the late 1800s. Or are they?

In different times, different words with different meanings have been used to describe the word hysteria: “uppity,” or “too opinionated” and “harsh,” as my step-grandfather admonished me with 10 years ago.

In the case of Director Tanya Wexler‘s  latest film, hysteria is the general hopes, dreams, and desires of women outside of darning socks, bearing children, and pretending to be sexually satisfied by their marriage.

The cure for hysteria? Why a hysterical paroxysm of course; otherwise known as a good old-fashioned orgasm.

The medical profession in England is on the brink of modernity when we meet Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) preaching hand-washing, clean bandages, and germ “theory.”

After being rejected by the medical establishment, he finds employment in the posh offices of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London’s premiere women’s physician.

HysteriaDr. Dalrymple patiently listens to the troubles of the upper-crust ladies, and then applies his patent treatment: vaginal massage to the point of orgasm. Afterwards, the ladies feel better. Imagine that?!

He shows Mortimer the ropes and the methods of his practice, and makes an introduction to his two daughters.

The eldest is Charlotte, played wonderfully by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a role that seems tailor-made for her. Charlotte is a feminist, suffragette, burgeoning social worker, and all-around rabble-rouser, who clashes with her father and Mortimer on the ridiculousness of the “hysteria” diagnosis.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Hysteria” is how female sexuality was regarded at a time when medicine and science were rapidly modernizing. At one point, Dr. Dalrymple explains that everyone knows women can’t experience sexual pleasure without penetration, so they didn’t regard the “treatment” as having anything to do with sex.

And after months of painful hand cramps, Mortimer, with help from childhood friend, the eccentric playboy and electricity aficionado Edmund (Rupert Everett), develops the world’s first motorized vibrator.

For all the fascinating subject matter, the plot was a little thin and conventional at times. This is a movie more about the topic, than about story or character development.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “radical” character becomes a focal point for the debate on whether “hysteria” is a clinical condition, or just the normal state of woman-hood.

And predictably,  she and Mortimer’s fiery exchanges eventually turn into fiery passion (i.e. chaste Victorian smooching).

I had the opportunity to interview director Tanya Wexler on the phone after I attended a screening. What struck me the most about our conversation was that the film was originally intended to simply be a straight-up comedy about the invention of the vibrator.Hysteria

Today’s current political and social landscape certainly gives the movie a more serious edge, and begs questions about how much progress we’ve made, and is it enough?


Hysteria opens today in  select theaters everywhere, click here  for theaters and showtimes.