Letter from Toronto: Hysteria Hums Along; Albert Nobbs Drops the Tea Tray

A tribute to vibrators and the women who love them, Tanya Wexler's Hysteria is a jaunty little entertainment that's almost plowed under by its early-suffragette arguments for women's equality. But like the little motorized whatsit that is its subject, the movie's charms are ultimately irresistible.

The picture is set in Victorian London, a time and place where the women's ailment known as hysteria was treated by some rather, um, direct and interesting methods. (According to the movie, they involve two kinds of oil and a doctor's fingers.) Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, a physician who's interested in modern medicine -- he's hip to the idea of germs while all the other docs are still hung up on leeches. No hospital will have him, and he feels lucky to land a job in the office of one Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in this delicate female complaint. "It's the plague of our time!" he tells his young colleague. "Half the women in London are afflicted!"

Only half? Anyway, many of the afflicted make their way to the good doctor's office, so many that Dr. Granville begins suffering desperately from hand cramps. Luckily, his closest friend, a layabout aristocrat played by a marvelously louche Rupert Everett, has invented an electric feather duster that, with a few tweaks, actually serves as a handy hysteria treatment device. The thing catches on like wildfire, and everybody's happy.

Well, not quite. There's also a creaky side plot involving the doctor's outspoken daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her crusade to help the poor and attain equal rights for all women; it wears thin pretty quickly. Still, Gyllenhaal -- with that bright, expressive, acorn-shaped face -- carries on valiantly, keeping the material from getting too preachy. The movie's offhand moments are the most fun, as when the two doctors, plus Everett, try the device on their first patient: They put a drape across her legs and don swimming goggles, peering expectantly into the abyss before -- huzzah! -- achieving victory. Hysteria is most delightful when it slips into its naughtiest groove and just purrs.

albertnobbs300.jpgIt's probably no coincidence that in Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close, who plays a woman living and dressing as a man and working as a waiter in a 19th-century Dublin hotel, bears a close resemblance to Gordon Jackson, who played butler Mr. Hudson in the '70s BBC TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. (Pauline Collins, who co-starred with Jackson in the series, also appears in the film.) But Close's character -- the Albert Nobbs of the title -- probably isn't as content with her work as Mr. Hudson was. She's hoping it's a means to an end: She's saving her meager earnings so she can open a tobacco shop and, perhaps, entice the maid she's in love with (played by the winsome Mia Wasikowska) to share her life with her.

The premise is intriguing, and if any director is sensitive enough to explore the plight of a woman trying to pass as a man, it's probably Garcia. (The screenplay was written by Close and Irish novelist John Banville.) But Albert Nobbs is almost too sensitive -- it has a quivering, tentative quality about it that has to do largely with Close's performance. Her Albert is a human being in pain, and it's not fun to watch her suffering. But Close too often comes off as a wan Valentine. With her seemingly lashless eyelids and narrow smile, she looks ready to blow off the face of the earth in a heartbeat. Albert's silent agony comes to seem masochistic early in the film, perhaps because Close spends far too much time gazing into some imaginary distance, fingering her inner pain until it's worn thin. You feel terrible for her character; but that doesn't necessarily mean you want to watch her.

Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's 2011 Toronto International Film Festival coverage here.