By William Wolf


Pair 1880s prudish England with the pleasures to be gained by women from the invention of the vibrator and you have the ingredients for a delightful comedy with a women’s liberation twist. Director Tanya Wexler, working with a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, makes the most of the opportunity. “Hysteria,” also enabled by just the right casting, provides enjoyment bolstered by principle.

Theatergoers may recognize the subject, which was also used in “In The Next Room Or The Vibrator Play.” But Wexler’s work is an independent venture, not an adaptation of the play. She relies on original source material for how the vibrator was developed and she runs with it, highlighting the comic aspects but also working in a romance and a political element.

Hugh Dancy plays young Dr. Mortimer Granville, who meets Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Robert Dalrymple, who specializes in treating women for hysteria, a term widely applied to problems that women may have. He has discovered the relief that occurs when the clitoris is stimulated. The joke here is that there is no recognition of this being a sexual act. When Mortimer invents the vibrator, the possibilities are heightened the treatment becomes much sought after with one patient after another eagerly seeking its reputed benefits.

The romance that develops involves Granville with Dr. Dalrymple’s daughter Charlotte, played charmingly with feisty outspoken independence by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Charlotte runs a settlement house, and is much the maverick in comparison with Dalrymple’s other daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). Charlotte would be a difficult marital choice for a man looking mainly for domesticity, but Granville is inevitably drawn to her as she is to him in a triumph of valuing and appreciating a woman for her spirit and principles.

“Hysteria” breezes along humorously with its sexual liberation bent and the parade of women benefiting from the electronic invention. Think of today’s vibrator variations and proliferation, and it is fascinating to observe these early origins as presented by Wexler. This comedy should have wide appeal.

During the Toronto festival a Spotlight Initiative Award was presented to the film by The Creative Coalition at a dinner honoring it for telling the story of a cultural revolution among 19th Century women. The director and stars of the film attended.


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