Evil loves innocence.
It's not an easy life, being a chambermaid in 19th century Edinburgh. But it's even harder if your employer's name happens to be Dr. Jekyll.
Facts of the Case
Based on a 1990 novel by Valerie Martin, Mary Reilly puts an intriguing spin on a familiar tale, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by telling the story from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's maid.
Julia Roberts is Mary, a young Irish woman in the employ of Dr. Henry Jekyll (played by John Malkovich), an eccentric, reclusive physician. Mary, a meek and shy woman who has spent all of her life under the thumb of one man or another, beginning with her abusive father, responds to Jekyll's kindness and comes to trust and open up to him. When Jekyll asks her how she received the odd scars on her hands and neck, Mary tells him a harrowing story of torture. This shared secret draws the two of them into a circle of intimacy and mutual attraction that inexorably tightens, even as Mary's horror at what is happening to her master—and his strange, frightening assistant, Mr. Edward Hyde—builds.
Upon its release in 1996, Mary Reilly was greeted with what can charitably be called mixed reviews. Few critics appreciated the film's spooky Gothic ambience and complex psychological drama; most dismissed the film as dull and slow-moving, and heaped scorn upon star Julia Roberts' uneven Irish accent. Audiences likewise spurned Mary, resulting in a huge box office bomb for this $47 million film (it only managed to gross $5.6 million). To this day, it's considered a critical and financial flop and a major misstep for Roberts, Malkovich, and director Stephen Frears (director of The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, and last year's phenomenal Dirty Pretty Things).
That Mary Reilly has been so overlooked is a shame, because it's not nearly as awful as many have made it out to be. In fact, it's probably one of the most criminally underrated and misunderstood films of the 1990s. Building upon the original Jekyll and Hyde story's themes of the duality of human nature and the battle within the human soul between angel and beast, Mary Reilly explores our attraction to the dark side of human nature, the allure of evil. In fact, the film is not so much a horror story as a psychological romance, a portrait of two broken souls who discover in each other the possibility of redemption.
The problem inherent in creating a story around the periphery of another, more famous story, is that the audience is constantly aware that there are interesting things going on just outside their vision. In some ways, Mary Reilly feels as if it might have been a subplot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Stevenson cut out of his final draft. Therefore, there are numerous moments throughout the film when plot points from Stevenson's story poke through the veil of Mary's narrative, and it's like a reminder that we could be watching an exciting, gruesome horror story instead of this quiet, slow-paced character drama. It's no wonder many viewers, surely expecting a more conventional telling of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, were turned off.
If, however, you approach Mary Reilly as a dramatic character study with horror overtones, you may better appreciate what the film has to offer. In the relationship between Mary, Jekyll, and Hyde, we have a surprisingly insightful study of the effects of abuse and oppression on romantic relationships. Or as the self-help book puts it, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. As Mary's fascination with and attraction to Dr. Jekyll (and, later, Mr. Hyde) grows, and as we dig deeper into Mary's past and discover her history of horrific abuse at the hands of her loathsome father, we begin to understand why this woman would find Jekyll's dual nature so compelling, and conversely, why Mary, alone among all women, is able to tame Hyde's rage.
The ironic thing about abuse is that its victims often grow up to enter into abusive relationships that parallel their treatment as children. Mary Reilly, likewise, is drawn equally to the caring, kind Dr. Jekyll and the rough, violent Mr. Hyde, who is so much like Mary's father that he even has the same shuffling gait. At the risk of getting overly psychobabbly about it, her deepening relationship with Jekyll and Hyde is really a process of transforming the abusive parent into a loving parent—it's almost as if, by gaining Jekyll/Hyde's love, Mary will receive the love she could not receive from her father. Mary, in essence, can only find healing from the person who hurt her, and in the emergence of his Hyde persona, Jekyll becomes the ideal surrogate for that person.
Jekyll, too, is drawn to Mary, both for her gentle and nurturing nature (the film depicts Mary as a symbol of life and fertility, growing flowers in a desolate courtyard and, in a sly Freudian image, holding a dead eel that suddenly comes back to life in her hands) and because he instinctively recognizes that Mary, with her lingering desire to heal the wounds of her past, understands his Hyde nature and may be the only person in his life who could possibly accept both of his personas. Ultimately, their relationship offers them both the redemption they are looking for.
A thematic structure this complex can only work with talented actors, and Malkovich and Roberts deliver excellent performances. Shaky accent aside, Roberts gives Mary a core of strength inside her timid exterior. Her large, haunted eyes convey volumes of unspoken meaning, and her pallid face looks like something out of a 19th century realist painting. This is a performance made up of subtle, meaningful gestures; women who have experienced abuse may recognize the way Mary's expression goes slack and dead when she is threatened by a man.
Malkovich's Jekyll isn't the wan, diffident milquetoast one might expect; in fact, in some ways his Jekyll isn't all that different from his Hyde, and I believe it's intended to be that way. Just as in Stevenson's story it's class identity as much as physical differences that prevents anyone from figuring out that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person (social class separations being so strict that it's almost unthinkable to connect people from different strata), here it's not so much external changes that mark Jekyll's transformation to Hyde, but internal, psychological changes.
So much of what goes on in Mary Reilly is internal, or expressed without words, that an unprepared viewer may wonder if anything is, in fact, happening. It's a movie made up of looks, gestures, and whispers. Like the ever-present fog that shrouds the city, it moves slowly and quietly, letting the significance of what is happening seep in gradually rather than hammering the point home.
Visually, Mary Reilly is a study in understatement. Its desaturated color palette, made up primarily of browns and grays, with occasional striking splashes of red (literally, in a few gory instances), is about as close to black and white as film can get and still be in color. Still, the film has a subtle, monochromatic beauty, and its pallor is an effective visual expression of Mary's and Jekyll's shadowed inner landscape. As presented on this DVD, the transfer is good but unremarkable; the print is mostly clean but shows a few noticeable defects, and is rather grainy (although this actually enhances the film's atmosphere). The Dolby Digital 5.0 audio is crisp and clear, depending mostly on the front and center speakers while sending ambient sounds to the rear speakers. It's a fairly talky movie, so there isn't much call for the surround channels, but the occasional moments when they are used are quite effective.
Extras are minimal, consisting of an eminently skippable standard-issue EPK featurette, filmographies for the two stars and director Frears, and a selection of trailers for Mary Reilly, John Carpenter's Vampires, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Judging from the public response to this film, your ability to get into this movie hinges upon your acceptance (or ability to ignore) Julia's Irish accent. If you can get past it, you may be able to appreciate the rest of the film. If not, you'll be thinking about it until the end credits, if you make it that far. I found it a little strange at first, but after about fifteen minutes I forgot all about it. I don't think it's a big deal, and neither did the person I watched this with, but if you're a stickler for perfect dialect, Julia's performance will probably sound like nails on a chalkboard.
Mary Reilly is something of a challenge. With its deliberate pacing and diffuse, gloomy ambience, it's not an easy film to enjoy. What's more, if you're going in expecting a straightforward horror movie, you'll likely be disappointed. I've heard people who enjoyed the film on video say that they avoided Mary Reilly in theaters because it was marketed as a horror movie. In fact, while it does have moments of horror, shock, and suspense, the film belongs more to the arthouse crowd than the grindhouse crowd. If, however, your tastes run more toward the cerebral, meditative end of the film spectrum, Mary Reilly will be a rewarding experience.
Mary Reilly's conviction is overturned on appeal. Case dismissed.
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• Making-Of Featurette
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