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Mary Reilly (1996)



Based on the Nebula-winning novel by Valerie Martin, Mary Reilly is an interesting reinterpretation of an old classic: Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Taking the original story of good and evil, and then shooting it from an outside, female perspective, Mary Reilly should have offered a new twist, or at least an amusing diversion. Instead, Mary Reilly is nothing more than an example of pretty art direction bolstered only by bad storytelling and even worse acting.

The premise of the movie is simple, if almost cliché. Mary Reilly (Julia Roberts) is an impoverished, yet surprisingly educated Irish maid who works in the house of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich), whose scientific experiments are beginning to go slightly awry. Their love was inevitable, as it always is in such stories, but they are kept apart by the differences in their social stature. And then comes Dr. Jekyll's “assistant,” Mr. Edward Hyde (also John Malkovich). Mr. Hyde is fascinated by Mary Reilly, possibly even in love with her in his own twisted way, and as an expression of his affection, plagues her at every turn. The film culminates in the an unsurprising conclusion when Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are revealed to be the same person, and Mary Reilly, by the virtue of her unwavering devotion, saves Dr. Jekyll's soul before he dies in a dramatic flourish on his laboratory table.

Despite its multitude of flaws (which will be enumerated in a moment), Mary Reilly does boast some beautiful production design Stuart Craig (The Elephant Man, the Harry Potter films). The film is shot in muted colors, mostly grays and browns, which make the occasional splashes of red all the more startling. Lipstick, red hair – they all appear in momentary flashes, usually at what is intended to be a tense moment. In one breathtaking scene, Mary Reilly has gone to the whorehouse at the behest of Dr. Jekyll, to receive a message regarding Mr. Hyde, who is in residence. As she steps inside, the camera cuts from the dreary, misty streets of London to a well-lit bedchamber, splashed from floor to ceiling in bright red blood. The change in setting is harsh, echoing the shock felt by our heroine. While the film doesn't have much else to its credit, the gas-lit interiors, the foggy street, and the dark, imposing architecture imparts an incredibly unsettling atmosphere.

It's a shame it had to be undone by a terrible script. The beauty of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that is explores the darker aspects of human nature, the sadism and sexuality that are fostered in a society of overwhelming repression. What Mary Reilly has to offer is nothing more than a slightly twisted love story. Most of Hyde's sadism is implied, if even that. Most of the time it just isn't there. Since the story is told from the perspective of a maid, who is necessarily cloistered with her housekeeping duties, we are only given snippets of what is going on. The “child stomping”, a scene from the original novella which was considered so horrible it was not included in most film versions, is here seen only briefly, by Mary Reilly from a window. When Dr. Jekyll pays off the parents of the child, it is unclear what has happened exactly. This same problem is repeated again during the blood-splattered scene in the prostitute's bedchamber. While obviously disturbing, it is unclear what exactly has taken place – a murder or an accident. It is possible that this ambiguity is meant to breed suspicion and suspense, but all it can muster is some mild confusion, and it certainly can't inspire any fear.

The love story also presents a rather convoluted issue, much like the strange love triangles of daytime television. Mary loves Jekyll. Jekyll loves Mary, but is afraid to show it. Hyde loves Mary and pursues her mercilessly. Mary is attracted to Hyde, but must resist, because she is proper and Hyde is scary. But Hyde and Jekyll are the same person. You think reading that was hard – try watching it with all of the repressed, subtle signals of Victorian England. Not only is the viewer expected to keep track of the twisted lines of affection, they are expected to do so when nothing is ever explicitly stated. Add in a heavy dose of “Love Saves All” mentality, in which Mary Reilly's devotion – to both Hyde and Jekyll – delivers them from their curse, and you have one of the least moving love stories of all time. It proves to be a jarring experience, one that strips away any investment we might have had in the character's relationships.

Of course, there isn't much investment to be had, anyway. None of the characters stand out, which in a movie meant to be character driven is fatal. John Malkovich as Dr. Jekyll is flat. He is proper, reserved, and scientific... but not much else. There is a total lack of investment by the character in his surroundings and in the other characters that surround him. Even in the final scenes, when Jekyll appears harried and haunted by the reality of Hyde, he maintains that same monotone, devoid of any panic or urgency. Malkovich as Mr. Hyde, however, is even worse, since it is Hyde, not Jekyll, that makes or breaks this dual character. Hyde skulks about the film, talking in a strange cadence that is likely meant to be creepy, but instead is reminiscent of a new age guidance counselor. In every appearance, Hyde is sprawling and smirking, but not at all menacing. Both of the characters lack complexity and depth. In short, Malkovich is trying too hard, either to be the repressed proper Jekyll or the sinister, unrestrained Hyde, and instead manages to be nothing but a disappointing and predictable stereotype in either case, devoid of any scrap of originality.

The worst element of the film, however, is none other than Mary Reilly herself. I'm not too sure if the bigger problem is the script or the acting, but both are abysmal. As written, Mary is a submissive, impoverished housemaid with a sordid past. Tormented by a drunk father who locked her in a closet with hungry rats, Mary escaped into service and has been a maid ever since. This is a big deal in the film, as much attention is given to rat bites around her neck, but it never leads anywhere. She's a tormented soul. Got it. Now what? The film never answers that. Further, Mary is always in trouble with the head butler, for being impudent and not knowing her place, yet she never does anything that could be construed as being even the slightest bit controversial. Oh, and she can apparently read. Not sure where an impoverished maid who hasn't been educated learned that trick, but it sure impresses Jekyll.

This isn't helped by Julia Roberts’ performance. Her soft, lilting Cockney accent is unconvincing, and its quality never wavers once throughout the film. In fact, her voice never wavers, nor does her expression, regardless of whether she is uncomfortable, startled or pleased. Roberts plays Mary Reilly like a timid mouse, afraid to come out of her shell and face the world. This is fine for a start, but she never changes. Mary remains exactly the same from beginning to end, regardless of the events taking place around her. Given that she is the center of the film through which the entire plot is filtered, her character makes the film unengaging and often downright boring. Our protagonist is a woman without passion or dreams, or even any really well-defined motivation, and the film cannot recover.

Despite being an intriguing idea, Mary Reilly is poorly executed. Telling this much-loved tale through the eyes of an unknown woman might have been brilliant, but without a strong character base, the story suffers, and without a good story, we are left with nothing more than a pretty setting. Maybe it would be better if you turned the mute on.