Attempting a Gothic-romance slant on the legend of Jekyll and Hyde, “Mary Reilly” has plenty of production polish but little of the dramatic force and erotic spark needed to vivify a tale of the famous split personality and his young chambermaid. Though it reunites the director, writer, two stars and other principals of 1988’s Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons,” this lugubrious costumer entirely misses that film’s acerbic wit and romantic elan. Despite the presence of Julia Roberts, pic’s muddled mix of melodrama and horror should hobble its B.O. prospects beyond the curiosity stage.
Coming after the disastrous “Total Eclipse,” pic will scrape further luster from the name of scripter Christopher Hampton, whose tepid and unfocused adaptation of Valerie Martin’s novel (fans of Jekyll/Hyde creator Robert Louis Stevenson will probably be relieved that he receives nary a mention here) is the obvious source of many problems.
In the era of Jack the Ripper and gaslight, Mary (Roberts) is a new addition to the household staff of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich), a saturnine recluse given to spending mysterious hours in the private operating theater attached to his gloomy mansion. When scars on her hands and neck catch his eye, the doctor begins to take the maid into his confidence, putting her in a privileged position that increasingly riles the staff’s crusty head, Mr. Poole (George Cole).
Mary eventually reveals that her scars came from a horrific childhood incident in which her father locked her in a cupboard with a ravenous rat. Implicitly, that trauma left the young woman with a divided image of men that is eventually mirrored in her employer, who cryptically informs his servants that they are to tolerate the nocturnal ramblings of his new assistant, Mr. Hyde.
The latter is a ringer for his bene-factor, only much younger, more ruggedly physical and with a violent, lecherous temperament. Mary is initially repelled by him, then surprised to find that she is also attracted. When Dr. Jekyll sends her on repeated missions to a bordello run by the shrewish Mrs. Farraday (Glenn Close), however, Mary discovers that Hyde’s temper appears to include a penchant for gory murders.
Grateful for the doctor’s kindness to her, Mary tries to protect him and his secrets, and it’s only after the police come looking for Hyde that Jekyll reveals to her that his assistant is really his alter ego, an id-like transformation resulting from his attempt to cure himself of a terrible disease. By this time, though, it’s too late for the cure, and for Mary’s efforts to save the doomed doc.
Although it commendably avoids gimmicky shocks, pic’s script devotes entirely too much time to turgid exposition and never develops the parallels between Mary’s mind-set and Jekyll’s beyond the rudimentary stage. Even more damaging to the tale’s entertainment value is the lack of truly gripping threats to the heroine or real chemistry between her and Jekyll/Hyde.
While the underrealized romantic aspects are largely attributable to the script, they are only accentuated by the mismatched performances of pic’s stars. Roberts tries hard and manages a convincing plaintiveness, but such a plain Jane is hardly her strong suit, and she gets little help from Malkovich.Seeming bored with the proceedings, he barely attempts a Brit accent and shows little of the fire and imagination that he has brought to other roles.
Among the supporting cast, Cole is vivid and memorable as the stern butler. But the big surprise is the almost unrecognizable Close, whose efforts to make herself ugly, garish and strident as the bordello madam prove singularly successful.
Helmer Stephen Frears adopts a manner that at times suggests a more sedate version of Tim Burton’s Batman films, with lots of crane shots and high angles placing Mary against the monochromes of Stuart Craig’s production design and John King’s art direction. Philippe Rousselot’s gorgeously muted lensing is among other top-notch tech credits that can’t do much against the inert script.