The Kooky Birth of the Vibrator in Victorian England Buzzes Along
By T.T Stern-Enzi
I’m sure that at some point during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, some outlet in the world referred to Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, which humorously probes into the birth of the vibrator, as “a feel good” story, so I will shamelessly insert my own play on this idea.
What we have here is a period piece that starts out looking like a hardscrabble Victorian drama about Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a dedicated young physician with a good heart and a desire to press forward with new information and techniques to provide the best treatment available, given the circumstances. The world at-large has little time or concern for his babble about germs and the need to maintain a sterile environment.
At least until Granville finds himself on the doorstep of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), the foremost expert of the day dealing with the treatment of female hysteria, which, in its most extreme forms, led to women being locked away or subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies. Dalrymple’s cure – manually stimulating patients until orgasm is reached – has earned him a stellar reputation and a logbook full of well-heeled patients that he can barely keep up with, so Granville hitches up with Dalrymple and soon discovers that he’s being groomed to take over the business, which includes marrying Dalrymple’s studious daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). Granville’s path to the good life though is impeded by the presence of Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the good doctor’s free-spirited daughter who dreams of running a clinic for less fortunate women and children and the chronic hand cramps that result from the rather strenuous Dalrymple cure for hysteria.
Charlotte’s character introduces all of the seriousness of the social structure, the debate about the status of working women (prostitution being the position of note) and the rights (to come) for women in society. She is a rebellious crusader, a real spitfire, and of course, it goes without saying that she looks like an incurable hysteric, which factors into the narrative plotline. Fortunately though, Gyllenhaal works her magic on these kinds of roles without breaking a sweat. The accent, the sharp intelligence, and the daft sense of humor are natural traits for her and she, while not a conventional Hollywood beauty, possesses an unforced attractiveness that cannot be denied.
Dancy brings his own charm to the proceedings as well. He has shown real facility with playing good looking bumblers of a sort, the kind of men, whether in period roles or in more contemporary settings, with wit and a hint of insecurity or sensitivity. He is earnest through and through and together with Gyllenhaal, he helps to sell Hysteria, even when things threaten to go too broad for their own good.
And the feel good nature of things gets the better of Wexler. What should have been a fast and breezy affair with real whip appeal (crackling dialogue and a sassy sexual vibe) overplays its hand, attempting to reach a more mainstream audience. We know the birth of the vibrator will trigger a social revolution and that Granville will end up with the “right” Dalrymple sister, so why work so hard with this set-up? For this to be a film about a sexual discovery, there is precious little teasing of our sensibilities. For my money, I would have enjoyed Hysteria if it had been down and dirty.
What I’m arguing for would have been for a bit more time and attention on the lower end of the social spectrum. Leave the staid treatment rooms where the upper class ladies got their fix for the clinic and the working women of the age who already knew all there was to know about treating what ailed folks.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com