Looking Back: Mary Reilly (1996)

In the establishing scenes of “Mary Reilly,” Stephen Frear’s flawed but riveting take on “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” the screen is filled with thick, soupy London fog. This visual persists over the rest of the film, suggesting clouded truths, hidden horrors and the isolation experienced when there’s no one to hear your cries for help. If this doesn’t sound like a happy film, it’s not.

Frear’s faithful adaptation of  Valerie Martin’s exceptional, disturbing 1990 novel (a reimagining of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic novel) portrays the Jeckyll and Hyde tale from the perspective of Dr. Jeckyll’s timid, painfully vulnerable maid, Mary Reilly. Reilly becomes slowly aware that her boss, the kind but prickly, mysterious Dr. Jeckyll, is performing ground breaking experiments in his lab. Jeckyll warns Mary that he will have a “partner,” named Mr. Hyde, who will be appearing in the household.

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Mary is played by Julia Roberts in what is either her best performance or a case of miscasting that managed to work itself out. Roberts never smiles once in this film, which is like having Bruce Lee in your movie and never allowing him to fight. Everything about Reilly as a character seems at odds with Roberts’ range as an actress. She’s never played such a tortured, painfully insecure character before and likely never will again. Yes, her accent is all over the map but it doesn’t really matter, as her best scenes are silent. I’m not a fan of the actress, but will admit that in films like “Steel Magnolias” and “Notting Hill,” she is capable of being as great as the material. Her performance in “Mary Reilly” is as good and against expectations as Audrey Hepburn’s career best turn in “Wait Until Dark.”

John Malkovich plays both Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s tantalizing as the former but disappointingly vague as the latter. Malkovich has gnashed the screen in subsequent roles but is oddly neither scary nor flamboyant enough as Mr. Hyde (his Oscar-nominated work in “In The Line of Fire” was much more menacing ). His take on one of literature’s greatest villains lacks definition but it doesn’t loosen the film’s grip, either.

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The despair in this film doesn’t feel contrived, as it seems to take place in a world without hope or escape. It’s as though we, like Mary, are trapped, both inside Dr. Jeckyll’s home and his broken mind. Is it any wonder that this doesn’t break box office records?

“Mary Reilly” had a famously rocky production. From the start, rumors turned up that Malkovich and Roberts weren’t getting along. Among the more fact checked nuggets is that Malkovich initially claimed he’d play Jeckyll and Hyde without the assistance of make-up (he wound up wearing a wig as Hyde). There’s also the reports that the ending was re-shot at least half a dozen times, as the filmmakers had no clue how to end it. Martin’s ending was devastating. Frears and Hampton struggled to find a conclusion that was either more upbeat, equally grim or an acceptable Hollywood compromise. Should Hyde die? Should he die in Mary’s arms? Should Jeckyll cure himself and run off with Mary? Apparently, all that and more were filmed. Although I’ve seen the film more than once, I can’t recall how the movie ends. The ending ultimately reached doesn’t completely matter. Frears makes it clear from the start that stories like these have no real happy endings.

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Martin’s novel made the queasy suggestion that Reilly was drawn to Hyde because he resembled her abusive father. This bit of subtext is suggested mildly in the film, which already has more than enough ghastly material up its sleeve. Late in the film, a big name movie star is decapitated. There are also scenes of Reilly surviving child abuse and glimpses of the aftermath of Hyde’s rampages. Finally, we see the transformation take place- it’s an effective (if somewhat primitive) CGI effect that shows the metamorphosis in a fresh new way.

Not everything in “Mary Reilly” works and it can be off putting at times. Nevertheless, the film is far better than its reputation and is a unique take on Jeckyll and Hyde. At its center is a performance by Julia Roberts that few have seen, which is a shame. To date, this is her finest work.

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