Shrewdly contemporizing the oft-told tale of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” BBC America infuses some clever 21st-century wrinkles into the story — starting with the split personalities using a Dictaphone to swap notes over minutia like where they left the car. Forgoing makeup beyond minor cosmetics, James Nesbitt portrays the original transformer with deft use of posture and evil expressions, while writer Steven Moffat has layered on intrigue worthy of “The X-Files” that should pull an appreciative audience through subsequent chapters of this creepy six-hour adventure.
Moffat and the premiere’s director, Douglas Mackinnon, set the tone immediately, as Tom Jackman (Nesbitt) warns a psychiatric nurse (“The Bionic Woman’s” Michelle Ryan) about the terms of this strange relationship — how his alter ego knows not to cross certain boundaries of civility lest Jackman turn him in, while Hyde has threatened suicide if Jackman even considers seeking a cure.
What’s unknown initially is how the condition came to be, and if there are ties to Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th-century account, especially since Dr. Henry Jekyll left no known heirs.
The modern Jackman has a great deal to lose, with a slightly estranged wife (Gina Bellman) and two kids. Meanwhile, he begins to discover he’s being pursued by a shadowy organization that seemingly covets Hyde’s unique abilities. And despite several ingenious methods designed to keep Hyde’s animalistic side in check, a few facts appear clear: The primal part of Jackman/Jekyll desperately wishes to get out, and slowly, inexorably, he somehow is growing stronger.
Tense and moody, the premiere takes its time before unveiling Hyde, and at first it’s underwhelming. His eyes turn black and hairline becomes more stylish, but at first glance, it’s the same guy, maybe a little taller.
Nesbitt, however, is equal to the task of creating that duality, taking up a challenge that has attracted dozens of actors — among the more memorable Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Jack Palance — to the role. He instills Hyde with an unsettling sense of menace and foreboding, and the character’s power is formidable, from clambering up a building like an ape to prodigious strength, which he wields with gleeful cruelty.
The new layer of mystery adds paranoia to the fun, raising the question of whether a widely known literary work could provide the foundation for modern conspiracy.
Always a morality tale about the nature of good and evil, the story of Jekyll and Hyde hardly cried out for re-imagining, and the prospect initially provoked some trepidation. Yet once the wheels begin churning, it’s clear Moffat has maintained the underlying integrity while establishing his own surrounding mythology — a strange case of tinkering with a classic, wonder of wonders, without screwing it up.