© 2012 Ray Wong
What you do get when you add Victorian England, stiff upper lips, and vaginal massage? Okay, that probably sounds like a pornography, but what we get is a comedy about the birth of the vibrator.
Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a progressive physician who is fed up with old school medicine. He wants to help people, but with science and the latest medical technologies. He soon find a post as an assistant to Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in women medicine, in particular treating a condition called Hysteria. The way Dr. Dalrymple, and later Dr. Granville, treats these patients -- by digitally stimulating the vulva -- would seem outlandishly salacious today, but back then, it's normal.
Granville then meets Dalrymple's two daughters: the lovely yet conventional and demure Emily (Felicity Jones) and firecracker Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Granville falls for Emily immediately as she represents everything that woman should be: smart, kind, sweet, supportive; meanwhile, he finds Charlotte fascinating as she is bold, passionate and altruistic -- in many ways, she is like Granville himself. While Emily is equally smitten with handsome Granville, Charlotte dismisses him as yet another man who wants an easy, privileged life.
Soon, though, Granville professional life is threatened when hand cramps prevent him from performing his treatments. Dalrymple fires him. But soon, Granville gets an inspiration from his best friend Edmund St. John-Smythe, (Rupert Everett) a "confirmed bachelor" who enjoys science and technologies. It looks like Granville has found a solution to his problem when he is toying with a electro-mechanical feather-duster… thus born the electro-mechanical massager!
Hugh Dancy (Our Idiot Brother) is rather charming as Granville, and he fits the period role very well. While his character is somewhat bland, Dancy makes him believable and likable. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Nanny McPhee Returns) is over the top as brash Charlotte. Her British accent is fine, but still it distracts us from her performance. That's usually the problem when we see an American actor playing British (with the exception of Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong). It's really not Gyllenhaal's fault.
Jonathan Pryce (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) seems to have a good time playing the dashing but conservative Dr. Dalrymple. It's quite hilarious when we see him first demonstrating to the befuddled Granville the "treatment." Kudos to Pryce for keeping his face straight. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) is lovely and sweet as Emily, and she does a fine job with the character. Ashley Jenson (Nativity!) fits the role of Fannie, while Sheridan Smith (How to Stop Being a Loser) has a ball (so to speak) playing the naughty maid, Molly. But the standout here is Rupert Everett (Stardust), who plays St. John-Smythe with grace and excellent humor.
Written by first-time scribes Stephen and Jonah Dyer, the screenplay successfully conveys the essence of a light-hearted romantic comedy. The juxtaposition against the Victorian time period is actually quite brilliant, in many ways channeling Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately, the Dyers also rely too much on tropes and stereotypes and cliches. The main characters are all caricatures, or at least predictable. Don't get me wrong, they are rather endearing, but it's because they are such standard archetypes. Except for the main premise -- which I do think is brilliant -- there isn't much that is surprising or amusing.
The dialogue is standard. The plot moves along just fine. But the characters simply feel cliched and superficial, their relationships contrived and predictable. There's no question where the romance is going, and who Granville will fall for and choose. There's no question what Granville will do in the name of love. There's no question about the outcome at the end. Therefore, the value of the story lies in the journey itself. While there are moments of genuine fun and laughter, the plot also is predictable. Also, the modern sentiments and social attitudes seem somewhat out of place within the context and setting -- granted, it's a comedy made in 2012. Still, one could easily ask: "Do people in that time period really act that way?"
Director Tanya Wexler (Finding North) does a good job bringing the elements together to make a handsome Victorian comedy. The locations are great, and the production strong. Still, there's this nagging feeling that we're watching a handsome episode of the Masterpiece Theater. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I think Wexler is playing it a bit too safe.
I did enjoy the movie and find it amusing over all. The premise is fantastic, but the romantic comedy a bit lacking in originality. It would have been more interesting if the movie further explores the social and moral ramification of the "device." It simply falls short in that aspect. Otherwise, I think it might have been a true hysteria!
Stars: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jenson, Sheridan Smith
Director: Tanya Wexler
Writers: Stephen Dyer, Jonah Lisa Dyer
Distributor: Sony Picture Classics
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content
Running Time: 100 minutes
Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 8
Total - 7.3 out of 10.0