Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mary Reilly (1996)

The Jekyll-Hyde Duo And Their (His?) Maid

Mary Reilly" proves Julia Roberts has the clout to play an unbecoming role in a gloomy film with a story whose outcome, even in the age of the happily-ever-after "Scarlet Letter" remake, is an especially foregone conclusion. Hubris like this is not unknown in Hollywood, but we haven't lately seen it demonstrated so forcefully on dry land.

Biting into a huge slab of humble pie, Ms. Roberts appears as a shy flower in the household of Dr. Henry Jekyll, medic extraordinaire. She is seen scrubbing the front stoop as "Mary Reilly" opens. She serves her master endless breakfasts in bed, since morning-after syndrome is a serious problem in the Jekyll domain.

She also spends long hours stitching, to judge from the intricate tucks and folds of a very fetching maid's uniform. And since she is so eager to please, Mary plants a courtyard garden and tends it until it looks like the work of a Beverly Hills florist. Her green thumb is all the more impressive in view of the film's setting, a dank, fogbound 19th-century London that never sees a ray of sun.

"Mary Reilly," based on Valerie Martin's novel rather than on Robert Louis Stevenson's, witnesses odd goings-on in the Jekyll household through the downcast eyes of this shy young maid. In the process, it injects a classic horror tale with banal contemporary elements, like the alcoholic father who abused Mary and made her sympathetic to Dr. Jekyll's plight. ("The drink turned him into a different man," Mary says of her crude, leering parent, played with suitable unpleasantness by Michael Gambon.)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Freud could scoff with equal ease at the transparent mysteries of "Mary Reilly," especially when Mary finally grasps the secret that every audience member will have acknowledged from the start. "Now how could anyone know such a thing?" Mary marvels about Dr. Jekyll's alter ego. "How could anyone possibly guess?"

The job of casting such false naivete in a flattering light falls to Stephen Frears, an imaginative and able director reunited with several important contributors to the success of his "Dangerous Liaisons." These include the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, the production designer Stuart Craig and the playwright Christopher Hampton, who adapted Ms. Martin's novel. Most important, "Mary Reilly" reunites Mr. Frears with John Malkovich, who makes Hyde a model of mocking sensuality and treats the more repressed Dr. Jekyll as an only slightly less lascivious figure. Mr. Malkovich's insinuating presence gives the film an eroticism it otherwise lacks.

Ms. Roberts, looking sheltered and maidenly as only a high-priced movie queen can, has a much narrower role. Tremulous and shocked by predictable turns, regularly discovering gruesome souvenirs mixed in with the Jekyll laundry, she gives a solemnly repetitive performance without much spark. Clearly Ms. Roberts has the makings of a serious actress and the wherewithal to become one, but "Mary Reilly" offers a vehicle that is unrelievedly grim. The greatest demands placed on her here are sustaining a brogue and pronouncing "laboratory" with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Speaking of the site of Dr. Jekyll's experiments (ominously realized by Mr. Craig's set design), it contributes substantially to the film's gruesome streak. Bloody messes, animal carcasses, organs in formaldehyde and an eel that frightens Mary in the kitchen (see Freud, above) are among many sickening aspects of the film's semi-scientific tone. Glenn Close, also looking ghastly, plays a heavily painted harlot and has this story's most thankless supporting role.

"Mary Reilly" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes violence, scenes involving prostitution and many glimpses of graphic gore.

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Valerie Martin; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Lesley Walker; music by George Fenton; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Ned Tanen, Nancy Graham Tanen and Norma Heyman; released by Tri-Star Pictures. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Julia Roberts (Mary Reilly), John Malkovich (Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde), George Cole (Mr. Poole), Michael Gambon (Father), Kathy Staff (Mrs. Kent) and Glenn Close (Mrs. Farraday).

Published: February 23, 1996

Mary Reilly - Trailer

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