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USA/UK 1996
Directed by
Stephen Frears
108 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Mary Reilly

Although critically lambasted on release, a failure at the box office and today pretty much forgotten about, Stephen Frears' film, one of the many variations on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novel, 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', is an impressive addition to the catalogue.

Why some perfectly good films fail is a mystery. Certainly Mary Reilly is a well made film. Frears is a consistent good director and here he works with many of the team from his critically-praised, financially-succesful Dangerous Liaisons (1988) including script-writer Christopher Hampton, director of photography, Philippe Rousselot, composer George Fenton, production designer, Stuart Craig and producer Norma Heyman as well as actors John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

If across the board the film is qualitatively unimpeachable then I suspect that iit failure must be because narratively it failed to convince. This possibility is intimated right from the get-go when we see Mary (Juliet Roberts) scrubbing the front steps of Dr Jekyll’s fog-enshrouded house very early in the morning. The odd thing is that she is wearing an  elaborate pale-coloured uniform typical of female domestics of the time but one hardly suitable to her task.  For me this signaled that the film was not taking a realistic approach but rather an imaginative one, and indeed the film has a kind of fairy tale quality (witness the remarkable garden that Mary creates in the sunless inner courtyard of Jekyll’s house) albeit darkly so. .

Based on an award-winning 1990 novel by American writer, Valerie Martin, Mary Reilly re-imagines the Jekyll and Hyde story from the perspective of Dr Jekyll’s maid, not as a protagonist but rather as an actively inquisitive observer. One of the constants of Jekyll and Hyde films is their either/or treatment of the physically and mentally divided character but here Mary comes to know them as one (literally embodied in a tour-de-force scene in Jekyll’s laboratory).  She is provided with a back-story to explain her fascination with, empathy for and even attraction to the madness of the tormented Jekyll/Hyde.

Roberts at that time had an established image as a lightweight actress and Mary Reilly was an against-type performance. Philippe Rousselot’s camera often comes in close on her face and though with her flawless skin and astonishingly clear deep brown eyes she is improbably beautiful she endows the film with a dream-like quality which presumably is exactly what Frears was after (although her Irish accent is could have been better). Much criticism, not entirely undeservedly, was addressed to Glenn Close’s scarlet woman, Mrs Farraday, but John Malkovich is at his lecherously villainous best as the reprehensible Hyde and interestingly he portrays Jekyll with some measure of these qualities rather than a diametric opposite.  Although it takes a certain amount of indulgence, the actor’s switching between identities without Mary, or anyone else, realizing what is going on is commendably well done. The film also features Michael Sheen's first screen appearance of note.

So there you have it.  Film-making is an often thankless task and these are just a few passing encouraging thoughts on a film which deserves better treatment than it has received to date.

Available from: Shock Entertainment




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