London in 1880—where a hospital doctor scrubbing up is considered as radical as a suffragette demanding the vote, and as foolish as talking to someone crosstown on a new-fangled electric telephone. In Victorian England, there is also an epidemic of corseted, middle-class women diagnosed with the nervous, emotionally wrought condition of hysteria emanating from their female organs to account for their depression, frustration, and restlessness. This accurate background for a battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy is setup around a real historical figure, Dr. Mortimer Granville, but with a lot of fun and fanciful imagination about his life and his invention inspired by all these social currents.
In this entertaining version about a man who is little known, young Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) is first an idealistic surgeon fired from a large public hospital for insisting on the good hygiene practices recently promulgated by Joseph Lister. He is just as idealistic in refusing to be supported by his wealthy guardian’s son and his longtime friend, Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who can afford to tinker with new electrical gadgets, like a gentlemanly counterpart to Thomas Edison. The ever upbeat Granville is so frustrated that he grovels for a job with Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who would probably now be thought of as a Harley Street private doctor. The snobby Dalrymple caters to the vague complaints of society women. In an amusing montage, several British doyennes of droll, including Anna Chancellor, bemoan their widowhood or boring marital relations. Underneath their heavy, demure outfits and velvet-draped stirrups, Dr. Dalrymple’s hands-on pelvic ministrations stimulate a release that Victorians considered clinical, not sexual, though an Italian opera singer who can’t reach the high notes without the treatment is a bit much. Alan Parker’s The Road to Wellville (1994) satirized such European massage techniques at a Battle Creek sanitarium.
The very busy Dr. Dalrymple not only offers Dr. Granville a position, but also room and board, and introduces him to his beautiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), the perfect English rose, who spends her days playing the piano and studying the already discredited pseudo-science of phrenology, which interpreted personality by the shape of the skull. The handsome and charming Dr. Granville attracts more satisfied patients, and he decorously courts a promotion to partnership with the father and marriage with the daughter. But his very physical success in generating women’s internal paroxysms strains his hand, and thus his career and future.
A big wind blows through the townhouse in the person of Dr. Dalrymple’s elder daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who denigrates her father’s medical practice but begs him and his friends for donations to her settlement house (much like the famous Toynbee Hall in the East End, the model for Jane Addams’ Hull House). Her father wholeheartedly disapproves of her work, though one of her reform successes is the ex-prostitute working as his saucy maid, Molly (Sheridan Smith). (Gyllenhaal plays the rebel almost too much as a thoroughly modern feminist striding quickly past period restraints.)
When Granville accidentally discovers the muscular side benefits of St. John Smythe’s pulsating electric feather duster, Molly willingly tests his redesign for a woman’s internal purpose, and the results are enthusiastic Victorian versions of the woman in the deli from When Harry Met Sally. (An amusing range of gratified consumers’ reactions continue alongside the closing credits.) The only confirmed fact about Granville in the film is that he did patent one of the first electrical appliances in history, but if his design is one of the vintage vibrators on exhibit in the permanent collection of Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, it would certainly be an unusual movie tie-in.
In a very similar feel to David Mamet’s version of the Edwardian-set The Winslow Boy (1999), the enjoyment is watching how Charlotte will win over Granville (and a bewigged judge) to reconsider the political basis to what a diagnosis of hysteria means. While women could have gotten hysterectomies for such “extreme” symptoms as shoplifting until the diagnosis was formally eliminated in the 1950s, this archaic view deserves the mocking treatment it gets here.