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MARY REILLY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Julia Roberts, John Malkovich
Director:  Stephen Frears
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  3 Trailers, Talent Files, Featurette
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  September 12, 2000

Film **1/2

Mary Reilly is a terrific looking tease of a horror film; a movie with an hour and three-quarters of mostly effective set up, but no payoff. 

I have to admit, I was initially intrigued by the idea of retelling Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through the eyes of an innocent chamber maid.  It seemed like an idea fraught with possibilities.  I never read the novel by Valerie Martin, but after seeing the film, I’d tend to lump this version alongside Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett and Laura Kalpakian’s Cosette as examples of why modern writers shouldn’t try to tamper with classic characters and storylines. 

Julia Roberts was coming out of a long self-imposed hiatus when she played the title character in this film, a meek housekeeper in the employ of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Malkovich).  Despite the lowness of her station (butler and cook alike seem to loom high above her on the social scale), the good doctor takes a liking to her, mostly because of her strange scars.  He’s quietly fascinated by her horrible stories of abuse at the hands of her drunken father, and even more so by her passive attitude toward him.  “It was the drink that did it,” she insists.  The drink turned an ordinary man into a monster—we begin to understand Jekyll’s interest.

Soon the doctor is informing his staff of the infrequent presence of an assistant, a Mr. Edward Hyde.  Since everyone is pretty much familiar with the story, we eagerly anticipate the first appearance of this dark and unconscionable character.  Disappointment ensues.  Mr. Hyde is not the monstrosity of the Stevenson novel.  In fact, only two physical traits separate him from his milder counterpart:  Hyde has long black hair, and is clean shaven.  He makes no impression.  The first few times we see him, his only disparaging trait seems to be bad manners.

Of course, Hyde later reveals himself to have tastes for lust and murder, though these are often handled with kid gloves in the movie.  We never really get a sense of the evil this man is supposed to represent, and it doesn’t help that he softens in the presence of Mary.  “You still the rage,” he whispers to her, gently touching her face.  At this point, I realized I wasn’t watching Mr. Hyde.  I was watching Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

What made the original story so good was the Freudian concept of separating the ego (Jekyll) and the id (Hyde) into distinct physical entities.  Hyde is driven by base instinct:  he acts on impulse, with no morals or restrictions, and essentially, represents everything Dr. Jekyll, who is governed by temperament and conscience, could never allow himself to be.  Here, the film distances us a little too far from these men, and thus, the idea of the struggle between these two sides of one human being, the most important aspect of the story, is lost.

Somewhere along the way, the creators needed to decide:  is this the story of Jekyll and Hyde, or is it the story of Mary?  Shoving Jekyll and Hyde into the background of their own tale hardly seems conceivable, but that is exactly what has transpired here.  The dramatic and literal internal conflict so vividly brought to life by their struggle became a mere footnote to a rather stale and placid attempt at romanticizing the story.  Worse yet, the fears tapped into by the original story are completely lost.  We wait to be shocked and horrified.  We wait in vain.  As mentioned, the film does a pretty good job at convincing you something is going to happen, but finally and quietly, it reneges on that promise.

Julia Roberts is mostly fine as Mary, but her accent acrobatics leave a little to be desired.  Her attempts at sounding Irish range from pretty good to utterly foolish.  One early conversation with the cook is demonstrative:  with her first sentence, she sounds American.  Second sentence, upper class British.  Third sentence, Irish.  It took me a good half hour or so before I could comfortably conclude the character was supposed to be Irish.

John Malkovich fares much better as Jekyll/Hyde, and is one of the few actors who could get away without attempting an accent in the midst of cast who all have one.  He brings the right amount of sorrow and introspection to the doctor, while injecting just enough menace and anger into Hyde to play into the film’s formula of keeping us wondering until the end.

The film has a great, gothic look to it, and the overall sets, lighting and cinematography are the picture’s best assets.  Some period pieces look colorful, bright and new, while others deliberately try to look old and careworn.  This film goes for the latter, and it’s the right choice.  Particularly in the good doctor’s lab, where decay and disintegration already seem to abound a hundred or so years too early.  It’s an excellent visual metaphor for Jekyll’s deteriorating mental and physical condition.  Natural lighting abounds with excellent control and use—notice a dark scene in the doctor’s library lit entirely by firelight.  The natural dancing and flickering of the flames create an eerily beautiful ambience to the setting.  Director Stephen Frears has had experience with this kind of filmmaking, most notably in his acclaimed effort Dangerous Liaisons.

But ultimately, there were too many disappointments to overcome, not the least of which is the lack of physical distinction between Jekyll and Hyde.  Perhaps this was in homage to the famous silent film version of Stevenson’s novel, in which the great John Barrymore played the dual characters reportedly with very little make-up, instead using his ability to twist and contort his facial features to convey the hideousness of Mr. Hyde.  Whatever the reason, it was a big mistake here.  We’re supposed to believe that none of the staff, including Mary, can tell that they’re the same man.  That’s even worse than believing that Clark Kent’s friends, who are supposed to be crack reporters, never saw through the hat and glasses to recognize him as Superman!  Near the ending of the movie, however, we are treated to the transformation scene we didn’t expect, being that the characters look entirely alike.  And it’s a ridiculous, campy CGI one that owes more to Alien than anything else.

Overall, I’m guessing fans who found in the original Robert Louis Stevenson novel enough to keep them up at night will only find in Mary Reilly enough to put them to sleep.  Despite some favorable aspects, it attempts to tread too thin a tightrope, and falls well short of the goal.

Video ***1/2

Columbia Tri Star triumphs again with another terrific anamorphic transfer.  The picture is mostly dark, with occasional bits of softness that I believe are intentional, as they add a rather dreamy, surreal quality to certain scenes.  Coloring is very good and natural, with no bleeding, and images, even when softened slightly, still maintain enough detail to be credible.  Blacks are strong, and often, characters or images are blended into darker backgrounds to achieve a kind of “coming out of the darkness” look which is very effective.  The print quality is top notch, with little in the way of dirt or debris, and the transfer is free from grain or other compression artifacts, save for one little bit of shimmer I noticed in a dark, deep focused outdoor shot.  Overall, the transfer serves the source material very well, and though the nature of the film doesn’t lend itself to being reference quality, it’s still a highly commendable job from our friends at CST.

Audio ***

The digital 5.0 soundtrack (no subwoofer signal) is surprisingly good, and effective, with choice uses of the surrounds for impact.  At one point, a thunderclap sounded from my right rear speaker, and it startled me!  Other times, you might hear a bit of the low ends of the musical score coming from the back stage, or a choice scream every now and then.  Just enough to keep you looking over your shoulder.  The front stage contains most of the dialogue, which is full and clear, and a plethora of good sound effects and music.  The audio is dynamic and clean, and manages to sound fairly full even without the .1 channel.  What little bass there is in the soundtrack is handled nicely by the standard speakers with no distortion.  All in all, a quality listen, and a real plus for this DVD.

Features **

The disc contains talent files for Roberts, Malkovich and Frears, plus trailers for this film and two other CST horror titles, John Carpenter’s Vampires and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The so-called “making of” featurette is nothing more than a bland, uninsightful six minute promotional reel, in which Roberts is enthusiastic, but Malkovich looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else but there.

Summary:

Mary Reilly captures the look and feel of the Jekyll/Hyde story’s gothic roots, but unfortunately, fails to deliver the drama or horror of the tale.  You simply can’t try to retell this classic and keep your distance from the true subject matter in favor of a newer but significantly less interesting one.  The quality of this disc helps to make it a decent enough night’s entertainment, but true fans will be disappointed by the film’s failure to make good on its initial promises.