I’ve always liked Mary Reilly. Maybe this is because I’ve always been intrigued by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and appreciated it’s longevity and influence on pop culture. We see different incarnations of the story throughout literature, film and television. The Incredible Hulk for instance, is really a reimagining of the story dressed in an atomic age setting and geared toward a more adolescent audience. Let’s face it, Jekyll and Hyde is a timeless story with a universal theme that alot of people have been smart enough to adapt in different ways or use as a starting point for their own original stories. So I guess I’m predisposed to like this movie. That said, it has some problems and at the end of the day it may only be slightly better than mediocre.
First, the lay of the land: Mary Reilly is a film adaptation of the novel by Valerie Martin. In a nutshell Martin’s novel is the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as seen through the eyes of one of Jekyll’s young female servants and filtered through her perspective into a series of journal entries. The film attempts (sort of) to follow this premise. It’s focus is largely on Mary, played by Julia Roberts. Her relationship with Henry Jekyll and her response to his demise and the events surrounding it are emphasized and her backstory is lent almost as much significance as the actual story of the doctor and his mad experiment.
Jekyll/Hyde is portrayed by John Malkovich, Glenn Close has a minor role as the crusty madam of a brothel Hyde uses to indulge in his sordid and sadistic impulses, and there’s a small cameo by Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon and ugh! Underworld) as another of Jekyll’s young servants, but just about all of the screen time is devoted to the two leads.
Roberts for her part was nominated for a Razzie for worst actress and I don’t think it’s altogether undeserved. Some actors have the ability to express conflict or tension with subtle gestures or changes of expression and Roberts may possess this talent, but if she does it’s not on display here. Perhaps it’s more of an issue with the character she was given, and that leads me to my first real criticism (aside from Roberts’ shitty acting) of the film.
The idea of retelling a popular story through the eyes of a peripheral character is an interesting approach but here it sets up a dilemma that the film doesn’t fully overcome. Mary Reilly is infinitely less interesting as a character than Jekyll/Hyde. That character is a profound symbol of the duality and conflict within an individual’s nature. Mary is not much more than a witness or even a victim upon whom Hyde exercises his impulses to offend and threaten. Her character is plainly altruistic and one dimensional in spite of the film’s effort to present an internal conflict between her benevolent nature and her fascination/attraction towards Hyde. In one sequence Mary dreams of Hyde sneaking into her bed and tearing off her nightgown against her protests. When he explains he was under the impression that Mary had invited him into her bed -and therefore her psyche, since it’s a dream- she confesses that she did.
It’s a telling scene but it really just pays lip service to the notion of a duality in Mary’s conscience and the movie doesn’t go far enough in exploring her eroticism further, or what draws her to Hyde’s dark nature. There’s never another moment in the film where we doubt her absolute goodness, and as I pointed out before, Julia Roberts doesn’t work any acting miracles to bring more gravitas to the role. This one dimensionality might be easier to look past if she weren’t the central character.
The movie also has a problem with playing by it’s own rules. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume the filmmakers’ intent is to place us within Mary Reilly’s shoes and for her perspective to inform our perception of the story as is the case in the novel. There are instances where the movie succeeds with this tactic. For instance, the violence of Hyde’s bloody rampage in a brothel is only suggested, as Mary witnesses the scene in it’s gruesome aftermath. This keeps with the logic of a limited, first-person perspective, but there are a few scenes in the movie -such as Hyde’s assault on a young peasant girl in the street and later another violent assault on a local aristocrat- where information is imparted onscreen and without Mary present or through Jekyll’s flashbacks. These scenes take us out of the first-person narrative style and give us a perspective on the events that’s inconsistent with what I take to be the movie’s established agenda.
Maybe I’m nitpicking here but if the filmmakers wanted to be more faithful to the source material it would have been better if less of the violence was onscreen. I might be assuming too much in thinking that a faithful adaptation was even considered in the first place, but the film might’ve been more interesting if it had gone whole-hog with the novel’s idea and left the audience more in the dark on what Jekyll/Hyde was up to. The movie seems to not know whether it wants to be an all out horror film or a straight-up adaptation of Martin’s book. Instead of opting for one or the other, it splits the difference and suffers for it.
Having said all this I still personally like the movie. There are some pretty compelling moments and I think Malkovich’s performance has been underrated. It’s clearly the strength of the film. I enjoyed how Jekyll seemed to possess a perverse interest when Mary relays the story of her abusive father early in the movie. Upon hearing it he immediately excuses himself and rushes to his lab. We know he is going to drink his infamous potion and unleash Hyde. It’s as if the story of Mary’s torment serves as a kind of pornography and stimulates Jekyll towards his own twisted indulgence. (Unfortunately, this type of subtle character flourish is far more evident in the Jekyll/Hyde character than it is with Mary Reilly who has far more screen time.) The movie builds a parrallel between Hyde and Mary’s alcoholic father and Jekyll clearly siezes upon Mary’s refusal to say that she hates her father for his cruelty. In Mary, Jekyll sees the possibility of a person who will withhold judgement upon his acts as Hyde and this draws him to her as she is simultaneously drawn to the Hyde persona. Where this dynamic leads is fairly predictable, especially given that the story has been told and retold a thousand different times. I still enjoyed the doomed romance element, and Julia Robert’s best moments are during her gestures of compassion towards Jekyll and Hyde.
So in the end it’s a wash. There are alot of flaws in the film, but for me the good parts are good enough to at least balance the thing out. It’s not a great movie -maybe not even a good one- but it’s not terrible either. It hangs in a kind of limbo. Part of me wants to slam it but I can’t. Another part of me wants to praise it but I can’t.