‘Hysteria,’ reviewed by Marshall Fine


Interesting the difference a few months can make.

When I saw Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria” last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, I enjoyed it for its perspective on how far we’ve come in terms of our attitudes toward women having control over their own bodies.

Eight months later, “Hysteria,” a charming comedy to be sure, suddenly feels dramatically relevant to current events – particularly the right wing’s attacks on women’s reproductive rights. When Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a forward-thinking woman in 1880 London, voices her belief that, in the not too distant future, women will be able to have the final say about their own welfare, you listen and think, “Hmmm – apparently not yet, as far as some people are concerned.”

Wexler’s film, from a script by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is very funny about, um, touchy subjects. Oh, let’s just get it out there: This is a movie about the invention of the vibrator and women seizing the reins of their own pleasure. And it’s set in the Victorian era, at a time when conventional wisdom had it that women could only be satisfied by, as one character puts it, “the introduction of the male member.” If then.

The film’s story centers on Dr. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully proper Hugh Dancy), a modern-thinking physician struggling against a medical establishment mired in the age of bleeding and leeching. Fired from his most recent post for insisting on following the tenets of germ theory, he struggles to find a new job – until landing one with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose private practice specializes in treating upper-class women.

Specifically, he deals with what he says is an epidemic of “hysteria,” a then-popular diagnosis only for women. Its cause was thought to be “a wandering uterus” and its treatment is what Dalrymple refers to as “pelvic massage,” performed on clothed women with their drawers off and their feet up in stirrups, under a drape. Dalrymple keeps at it for 45 minutes or so, until they achieve a paroxysm – in other words, he’s finger-banging them until they reach orgasm. In the name of medicine, of course.

It’s a lucrative practice but he’s got his hands full, so to speak – which is why he needs to add Granville as his assistant. The new young doctor proves so popular – and the practice grows so busy – that Granville manipulates himself right into a case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

This review continues on my website.

Back to Top