As scripted by Christopher Hampton and directed by Stephen Frears, this is a gloomy, austere horror film, and it's unlikely to please many audiences. I can't say I liked it very much myself.
But it's not a film that can be written off entirely, either--there's a chilly integrity to this take on the material. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Wide Sargasso Sea, Martin's novel riffs on a work of near-universal familiarity by giving a voice to a supernumerary figure. Hampton and Frears, the team behind the smashing Dangerous Liaisons, prevent this conceit from becoming cutesy--they give it weight.
Traditionally, horror-film servants are comic figures, like the shrieking Una O'Connor in Bride of Frankenstein. But Mary Reilly has a tragic past. As a lower-class 19th-century Brit woman, abused by her loathsome father (Michael Gambon) when she was a girl, she finds in the drudgery of Dr. Jekyll's house a sense of relative security. When the good doc himself (John Malkovich) treats her with respect and courteous interest--he's probably the first man ever to have done so--she can't help but develop a little crush on him.
Later, when she meets the dark and rather dashing Mr. Hyde (Malkovich again, of course), she can't help but feel a tingle toward him as well. Before long, she comes to suspect that Mr. Hyde may be murdering people, and yet she can't quite shake his erotic appeal out of her head.
It would be easy to zap Roberts for her inconsistent attempt at an Irish accent or for Mary's curiously flawless lip gloss, but these quibbles aren't really what's wrong with the performance. The trouble is that it's all on three notes: She wears a blankly somber expression for stoicism, she widens her eyes for fear, she narrows them for arousal, and that's about it. Roberts is a lovely woman, and she has an extraordinarily natural rapport with the camera, but a role like this strains her--once you get past vulnerability, she doesn't seem to have a lot to offer in terms of acting.
Malkovich, clammy and squirmy as ever, comes across more strongly, but even he doesn't quite satisfy. His Jekyll and his Hyde are discernably two different characters; in two different movies, they would be a testament to his range. But in the context of this story, the distinction is too subtle. He just seems like the same guy with the same voice and face, wearing two different hairstyles and suffering from mood swings. This dual role has an an inescapable element of an acting stunt to it--part of the fun is watching an actor change himself into two people. That's what Malkovich declines to give us.
Frears stages most of the action of Mary Reilly on Stuart Craig's huge, spartan, tomb-gray sets and, after a while, the intentionally funereal atmosphere becomes tedious rather than unnerving. Ironically, for all the ponderous angst in the film's drear air, it's old-fashioned Gothic shock tricks--the clutching hands, the whispers from the shadows--that serve Frears best. The most striking scene in the film is its one major special-effects sequence--the transformation. It's a surreal freak-out, like a Francis Bacon painting come to life.
What's the point of it all? Well, I couldn't see the male-bashing that others complained about in Waiting to Exhale, but I do think that Mary Reilly is attempting a prudishly Victorian antimale sensibility.
Every single man in the film is either a smirking lech or a downright bastard, except for Jekyll. The film's business is to show us that the doc, too, has a murderer and rapist just under his civilized skin. All men are phallic monsters from the id, and most women are prepared to abet them in their predatory violence. Even if you accept this, it still begs the question: What if Mary Reilly were to try Dr. Jekyll's potion?--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Stephen Frears; with Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Kathy Staff, George Cole, Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hines and Glenn Close.