Director Tanya Wexler’s rom-com about the invention of the vibrator is more tame than its subject suggests.
Delivering a tickle more often than a sustained buzz, Tanya Wexler‘s romantic comedy about the invention of the electric vibrator in Victorian London, Hysteria, is a pleasurable diversion, even if it could have used a touch more spark in the writing.
The film has considerable overlap with Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, produced on Broadway in 2009. Using the same premise of a doctor inducing paroxysms to treat “hysteria” — at that time the all-purpose medical term for a whole gamut of female ailments — Ruhl employed fictional characters to explore social mores, the gender divide and women’s attempt to understand their sexual and emotional needs.
Screenwriting team Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer instead build Hysteria around the historical figure of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who invented the prototype stimulation device. But they use that breakthrough as background for a less specific story of women seizing their rightful place in society and for a slow-starter romance.
Frustrated with a medical establishment that still prescribes leeches, bleeding, sea-bathing and miracle tummy tonics but refuses to keep up with scientific discoveries such as germ theory, Mortimer bounces from one unfulfilling hospital job to the next with mounting despair. Eventually, he finds an open door at the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who maintains that half the women in London are afflicted with hysteria, manifested in everything from frigidity to nymphomania. Unable to keep up with the demand for his intimate massage, he hires Mortimer to, ahem, lend a hand.
Mortimer proves quite popular with the patients, prompting his employer to consider taking him on as a partner while dropping hints that his smart, pretty daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), would make an ideal doctor’s wife. Dalrymple is less content with his elder daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a one-woman whirlwind of social revolution who defies his wishes by continuing to run an East End settlement for the economically disadvantaged, even after he cuts off her funding.
When persistent hand cramps prevent Mortimer from doing his job, Dalrymple dismisses him. But while hanging out with his friend and benefactor Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), a filthy-rich toff who dabbles in the burgeoning field of electronics, Mortimer stumbles upon the idea of a power tool capable of giving women the desired paroxysm in a fraction of the time and without the manual effort.
As the end credits illustrate, the rest is vibrator history, ranging from the original Granville’s Hammer to more recent models like the Rabbit and Pocket Rocket. But the film shifts its focus away from the gadget and onto volatile Charlotte’s legal woes when she gets into strife over debts. That causes Mortimer to reconsider his views on women’s so-called hysteria and to redirect his affections.
Much of the humor in the Dyers’ screenplay is more droll than genuinely witty, and the prurient sexual stuff occasionally gets strained. But while Wexler’s pacing can become a little stodgy at times, the film has a sweetness that keeps you watching. This is helped by the relaxed charms of Dancy, who wears his mutton-chop sideburns and dapper period garb well, and the luminous Gyllenhaal, whose boisterous, vaguely contemporary energy here fits with her character’s hunger for emancipation.
Everett turns the dial way up on his blase, upper-crust mannerisms, but enjoyably so, and Pryce brings an agreeable hint of eccentricity to the earnest doctor, though it’s questionable whether his refusal to consider the value in Charlotte’s work is entirely in-character.
The well-upholstered production delivers a solid period look on what’s doubtless not a huge budget, thanks to resourceful work from set designer Sophie Becher and costumer Nic Ede.