No Big O
Directed By Tanya Wexler
Starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones
Less titillating than its premise would suggest, leisurely paced two-hour period drama Hysteria nevertheless charms in unexpected ways and is a reasonably tasty banquet for the same Anglophiles who embrace Downton Abbey and devour the novels of Austen and her contemporaries.
The film’s story centers on Dr. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully proper Hugh Dancy), a modern-thinking physician struggling against a medical establishment mired in the age of bleeding and leeching. Fired from his most recent post for insisting on following the tenets of germ theory, he struggles to find a new job – until he eventually lands one as the assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose private practice specialises in treating upper-class women.
Specifically, he deals with what he says is an epidemic of “hysteria,” a then-popular diagnosis only for women. Its cause was thought to be “a wandering uterus” and its treatment is what Dalrymple refers to as “pelvic massage,” performed on clothed women with their drawers off and their feet up in stirrups, under a drape with plenty of “medicinal oils”. Dalrymple keeps at it for 45 minutes or so, until they achieve a paroxysm – in other words, he’s finger-banging them until they reach orgasm. But it’s all in the name of medicine, of course.
The procedure for treating “hysteria” continues to evolve when, after suffering from a serious case of RSI, Granville enlists the help of a wealthy dilettante inventor (played by a typically camp Rupert Everett). That, in a roundabout way, is how the vibrator comes into being.
Dalrymple is so pleased with Granville’s invention that he grooms him as his successor and sets him up with his demure and prudish daughter Emily (played with just the right mix of childish naivety and properness by Felicity Jones). But all bets are off once the young, idealistic doctor is introduced to Dalrymple’s other daughter, Charlotte (the scene stealing Maggie Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who campaigns for women’s rights and runs a center to help feed and educate the poor.
Although it’s not particularly hard to predict which sister will ultimately win Granville’s affections, the screenplay does a reasonably skillful job of interweaving its subplots and creating some mild surprises. This is a programmatically feel-good movie whose tempered optimism and insistence that it’s never too late to leave your comfort zone and explore new horizons stays mostly (but not always) on the safe side of sentimentality.
Director Tanya Wexler re-creates the costumes and trappings of the 1800s nicely, but unfortunately she stuffs the corsets and carriages with one dimensional characters and a bogus subplot, in which Charlotte’s tangle with a policeman over an unpaid debt threatens to land her in a hospital for the criminally insane and facing a hysterectomy.
Despite its charming cast and stunning set design this historical reimagining doesn’t induce a big O.