'Hysteria' is a tame movie about history of the vibrator 

click to enlarge Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy play a Victorian-era couple in “Hysteria,” a film by Tanya Wexler. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy play a Victorian-era couple in “Hysteria,” a film by Tanya Wexler.

Thoroughly pleasant but too tame and fluffy to do its subject justice, “Hysteria” is a film about the vibrator that you can almost take the kids to.

Potentially a satire skewering dark-age social mentalities, or a pointed historical look at the treatment of women, or a vibrant celebration of female pleasure, it shapes up more slightly as a routine love story with a cute idea at it is center.

“Based on a true story  —  really,” is how director Tanya Wexler (“Finding North”), working from a script by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, introduces the movie, whose central character, Mortimer Granville (he patented the first electromechanical vibrator), is fact-based.

The stuffy Victorian-era London setting, too, is real. The additional characters are clearly fiction.

Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) is presented as a progressive young doctor whose belief that germs cause disease (his superiors use leeches) has made him unemployable.

He finally finds a job, as assistant to Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a doctor who treats women diagnosed with “hysteria.” Half of London’s female population is reportedly afflicted.

Dalrymple’s treatment is “pelvic massage,” a clinical procedure that results in “paroxysm” defined, this being 1880, as a nervous-system release. The waiting room is packed.

With the job, Moritmer enters the wealthy Dalrymple’s orbit. He becomes engaged to the doctor’s dutiful daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).

But Moritmer is transformed by Dalrymple’s other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a female-equality activist who runs a home for women and kids in need. Charlotte criticizes her father for treating socialites for nonexistent ailments while ignoring society’s less fortunate. Wexler has a bent for breeze, and this quality, furthered by the in-sync cast — Gyllenhaal is likable, Everett entertaining — keeps things agreeable.

Initially, as it sets up its themes, the film appears headed somewhere provocative, outrageous or simply sexy. But once the love interest shifts to Charlotte, the film becomes a romantic comedy and formula prevails. Despite the vibrator element, female sexuality is hardly addressed. The characters are largely symbols.

It all totals mildly enjoyable fluff. Things could be worse, but these actors and themes merit more.

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Anita Katz

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