By Ingrid Soto-
After watching this film, you may think twice before saying that someone or something is hysterical. Why? Because hysteria was actually the medical term assigned to female sexual desire for many centuries until 1952, when it was no longer considered a medical disorder, and was finally removed from physicians’ manuals.
This comedy of manners, loosely based on historical facts, takes place in downtown London circa 1880. Although it is mostly about the treatment of hysteria and the events that led to the invention of the first electro mechanical vibrator in 1880, it also touches on women’s rights in 19th century England. So how does Tanya Trexler, its director, manage to put together these potentially tricky subjects into an engaging, tasteful comedy? Perhaps this is one of the main accomplishments of the film.
The story begins with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a private practice where he treats upper-class women for what was known as “wandering uterus” or hysteria. His treatment consists of covering their lower bodies while performing “pelvic massages” until these women reached “hysterical paroxysms” (orgasms). The 45-minute sessions successfully release his patients from their symptoms (at least temporarily) and soon enough his practice grows so popular that he cant keep up. So Robert hires a modern-thinking young doctor, Mortimer Granville, to “give him a hand” with his practice (pun intended). Dr. Granville eventually develops carpal-tunnel, hence the need to devise a mechanism that will treat female hysteria. That’s how the vibrator was invented by a man to alleviate himself from the tedious task of pleasuring women!
Dr. Granville (sharp and proper Hugh Dancy) is invited to live at the Dalrymple’s home, where he meets his two young and beautiful daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dr. Granville finds himself torn between the two sisters. Emily exudes delicacy, grace, and good-old Victorian manners. In her words, “life is of little value unless it is consecrated by duty.” She spends her days playing the piano, studying phrenology, reading, and she’s clearly her father’s favorite. Emily immediately catches the young doctor’s attention, who finds that she “embodied the ideal British woman.”
Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is her sister’s exact opposite. Rebellious, fierce, and forward thinking, she works with the poor at a settlement house. She uses her wealth and her time to help others, and to advance the social causes that she so strongly endorses.
The director manages to bring the social tensions that were a consequence of the rapid socioeconomic changes of the time to the film, without taking our eyes off the main subject, hysteria. Despite the spicy theme and the not-so innocent jokes, Trexler keeps the humor subtle and tasteful.
Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of Dr. Granville is often awkward, as if he didn’t understand his place in the story, but that was largely the nature of his character. Gyllenhaall, on the other hand, shines as Charlotte: though: feisty, witty, opinionated, and undeterred, she is a woman ahead of her times and plays the part.
This won’t be the kind of film that will linger in your memory for years to come, or one that will make you laugh hysterically (perhaps!). But it is engaging, a bit informative, and it does provide intelligent dialogues as well as subtle humor. Do stay for the credits at the end; there is a display of different female toys from the first electro mechanical vibrator invented in 1880 until those used in the present day. At least get a visual history lesson while you’re at it, no?