Adapted from: Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin
Starring: Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Glenn Close
Written by: Christopher Hampton
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Taking its inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic delight, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Valerie Martin spins out a lovely, little tale of her own in Mary Reilly from the perspective of the eponymous housemaid. It is framed as her journal entries from her time in the house of Dr Jekyll, presenting Stevenson’s tale from a slightly askew angle.
Mary’s a young, impressionable thing, he is a gentle master who keeps late hours in his laboratory. The servants take care to see that his needs are met, but for the most part he is left alone. The quiet equilibrium changes when Jekyll hires an assistant, a Mr Edward Hyde, who is given the run of the house and alarms the servants with his rude and uncouth manner. As Mary grows closer to her master, she is also tormented by Hyde, who may or may not be a murderous criminal.
The construction of a narrative to offer different perspectives or other sides to stories from classic literature has gone through a few iterations in its time. The most famous of which is probably Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which functions as a prequel to Jane Eyre, allowing Antoinette Mason a chance to exist in the world before she becomes Mrs Bertha Rochester. Rhys is operating on various levels with her book, engaging with postcolonialism and feminism within its pages. Martin’s novel does not have anywhere near the same depth, nor cultural impact, but she does relish the ability to convey this story without ever having to say anything explicit about what’s going on in Jekyll’s laboratory.
Martin’s novel largely gets by on the wealth of atmosphere it creates. Martin also plays close attention to detail, bringing over descriptions of Hyde from Stevenson’s novel (and avoids the usual mistake of making Hyde bigger, a bizarre choice in films because Stevenson repeatedly describes him as much smaller than Jekyll). Indeed, Martin relies on her audience to know the familiar tale of Jekyll and Hyde and uses a delicious kind of dramatic irony in Mary’s speculations, whilst borrowing liberally from none other than Jane Eyre to create an implicit erotic triangle between Mary, Hyde and Jekyll.
So how do screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears approach a novel so indulgently subtextual? They make it text. This works about as well as you can imagine.
It will always be difficult to translate a first person narrative into film. The first person relies on the reader having access to a character’s interiority; their thoughts, feelings, and fears. It can be a powerful tool in the right hands and one which allows an author to mess with their reader if they so wish. Unreliable narrators litter the fictional landscape, but there can be nothing more effective than a naive one. This is how Martin’s novel works; Mary hasn’t got a clue what is going until the very end of the novel and so tension is wrought from the reader, who is not there to solve the mystery, but to witness it, to see if Mary can solve it herself.
In the film, this mystery is taken away the second we see a whacking great plaque with Dr. Henry Jekyll on it and his name is thrown liberally around by so many characters that they might as well have held up a neon sign. Glenn Close, who has apparently wandered in from a local pantomime troupe, bellows Jekyll’s name in comparison to the way she delivers the rest of her lines. We also see Hyde before Mary does, so the audience gets ahead of her and the story shifts its alignment from her perspective on the mystery to a more distant one of her role within the not-mystery itself. To cope with that shift and the loss of tension as a result, the film places its focus solely on the triangle of Mary, Jekyll, and Hyde.
This also doesn’t work.
Poor Julia Roberts - she of the dynamite smile, vivacious personality, and ultimate star wattage - is not built for a traditional Gothic narrative. She gamely tries, both with accent and performance, to make Mary more than the film’s narrative lens, but too often, the screenplay leaves her a passive observer. There is also little effort taken to build the relationship she has with Jekyll. The novel is a slow burner, gradually teasing out their mutual attraction into something weighty, deserving of the kind of longing glances at the end of the story that the film forces Mary into from the start.
The chemistry with John Malkovich is not the most electric, remaining serviceable for most of the movie when he is Jekyll, less so when Hyde. Comically little effort is done to differentiate between Malkovich-Jekyll and Malkovich-Hyde; the difference amounts to different hair and an absence of goatee. This might have worked with a less striking actor, but John Malkovich in another wig is still very John Malkovich. His performance operates, appropriately but not successfully, on the extremes of the spectrum. As Jekyll, he embraces the tortured sophisticate and it’s the better half, deploying a world-weary charm that matches well with Mary’s naivety. As Hyde though? It’s surprising that there is any scenery left for all the chewing of it he’s doing.
Given the subtlety that Frears and Hampton are aiming for everywhere else in the film, it clashes horribly. Yes, Hyde should be grotesquely inappropriate (visually too; they let that go by the wayside), but within the correct framework; to have him so over-the-top is to break down the atmosphere that carefully builds before his arrival. Any scene with Close also has this effect. It completely contradicts the measured nature of Martin’s source material and in doing so, fails to retain the extraordinary atmosphere that makes Mary’s story so compelling.
I will give the film points for its particularly gross and literal transformation scene as Jekyll bursts out from within Hyde’s body. Aside from liberal splashes of blood at the impossibly-accented Mrs Farraday’s, it’s the only true moment of horror in a film that could have done with playing up its more chilling aspects. Mary ruminates on the symbiotic relationship of the doctor and his assistant in the novel, an externalisation of the debate that takes place through Stevenson’s original tale. The film touches on this a few times, but the transformation scene swiftly encapsulates the character of Jekyll; Hyde is always within him, it is only the serum that allows him to escape.
The film as a whole is rather infuriating because Frears clearly has an idea of what his film should look like as a Gothic romance. There’s fog enveloping London, dank cobbled streets, dark corridors aplenty. The drab colour scheme is enlivened by the use of lighting and the shadows seem heavy and threatening. There is an affection and wider knowledge of Stevenson’s tale too; Mary finding Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man is a neat reference to Jekyll and Hyde’s post-Darwinian context and the way in which evolutionary theory is threaded through the book. Yet those little touches are lost by the end of the film.
Valerie Martin’s novel definitely carries the opportunity for a good adaptation within its pages and given the recent popularity of the Gothic in cinema and television, it would not shock me to see another in development. However, the adaptation that exists is a contradictory muddle, one every bit as torn between restraint and excess as the doctor that Mary serves.