It was thought in the late 1800s, and probably long before then, that a woman suffering from hysteria required stimulation in her nether regions in order to “coax the uterus back into position.” This would right the body and mind, temporarily curing a woman of nervousness, stress, loss of appetite, and any number of symptoms owing to the her weak constitution. Of course, hysteria wasn’t a single disease so often as it was a manifestation of a basic human need. And the thing to satisfy that need – the humble vibrator.
The story of the first such electric massager is brought to humorous life in this film, which weaves a tale of invention with social and cultural change in Victorian England. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully bemused Hugh Dancy) is a forward thinking doctor who insists on cleansing wounds in order to minimize the chance of infection by germs. The preposterous idea that microscopic bugs could cause so much disease and death gets him bounced from one hospital to another until he lands a position at Dr. Robert Darymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic. Well respected for his ability to relieve women of their suffering, if one can call it that, he enlists the young Mortimer to assist in his hands-on practice, and possibly to form an alliance with his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).
It’s an amusing film that has great fun with its subject. That Dr. Granville could be so progressive on some areas of medicine yet still subscribe to the belief that women are “unable to experience pleasure without male penetration” garners knowing chuckles. The men are oblivious to the true nature of their work as they briskly oil their hands and finger their way past layers of skirt. Meanwhile, their patients are propped up on an elevated lounge chair, their lower halves covered with a gold and burgundy canopy that lends a certain elegance to the whole affair. Let’s say we’ve come, er, a long way.
And you see how easy it is to give into the temptation to make double entendres and other such coy winks at the audience. There’s sometimes a little too much tongue, and whatever else, in cheek, and the creation of the vibrator and the tremendous social changes that spurred its popularity can seem trite, as if the real significance of the story was brushed aside for some big masturbation joke. One of the first tests of the “feather duster,” as it was initially conceived by Granville’s inventor friend (Rupert Everett), is on an opera singer who’s lost her voice without her weekly sessions. Its success causes her to literally sing in ecstasy, to which I say, to each her own.
The film attempts to add context and seriousness, however, with Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dr. Darymple’s fiery activist daughter and Granville’s intellectual match. She blazes across the screen, full of righteous indignation, demanding her dowry in order to support a poor house for the indigents who are also her friends. The woman is formidable, and so is Gyllenhaal; there’s never a doubt that Charlotte can determine her course in both work and pleasure, seeking gratification in her high ideals and, should chance allow, a partner who shares those commitments. So while Granville is a hero of sorts, the climactic scene shows Charlotte to be the true model of a liberated woman.
Prod: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis
Dir: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Evertt, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Tobias Menzies
Time: 95 min
Country: United Kingdom