MARY REILLY *** USA / UK 1996 Dir: Stephen Frears. 108 mins
Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Valerie Martin’s novel, this tail-end entry in Hollywood’s early 90’s Gothic horror cycle (spun off from Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA) was a costly failure at the time and misleadingly sold as a full-blown genre film. Hampton’s take on Stevenson’s classic novel puts the focus on the title character (Julia Roberts), the physically / emotionally scarred housemaid of Henry Jekyll (John Malkovich). Haunted by the suffering doled out by her brutish father (Michael Gambon), she enjoys a close, if odd, relationship with her employer while also being drawn to his charming acquaintance Mr. Hyde (Malkovich), the one who has been clobbering aristocrats and slashing up prostitutes in the city.
Admirably restrained in terms of onscreen horrors, Frears’ deliberately paced movie pivots around an affecting, moving performance by Roberts as the downtrodden Mary – if you can get past the wandering Oirish accent, it’s a brave star turn. Malkovich underplays effectively as both Jekyll and Hyde, though Glenn Close has the most fun hamming it up as monstrous brothel keeper Mrs Farraday. The most impressive thing about the movie is its downbeat overall tone, reflected by Phillippe Rousselot’s appropriately grim cinematography: the whole film is enveloped by a sense of death and decay. What it doesn’t have – and what would have alienated 1996 audiences – is a sense of dramatic momentum and tension: Hammer in its prime would have balanced the character study with Gothic horror tropes and more sheer entertainment value. (Indeed, their two revisionist attempts at the story – TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE – are stronger movies all round).
Review by Steven West