'Mary Reilly': a rambling exercisein Victorianboredom

By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 18, 1996

Arizona Daily Wildcat



Stephen Frears' new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jeckyll and Hyde story, based on Valerie Martin's novel "Mary Reilly," is a billowing romantic spectacle filled with dark, lofty mansions, dark London mists, dark chambers dripping with blood and a dark, torrential love affair. It's a dark movie. In fact, the film utilizes so little light, most of the characters simply materialize out of the inky shadows and move about looking as if they exist in a permanent state of asphyxiation. Victorian London is populated with blue-skinned people.

Presumably, this desire to hide the film in darkness is an atmospheric ploy, but unfortunately, so little happens in the movie that the darkness basically serves as a cover to convince audiences that the plot really is moving along and they simply can't see it.

Julia Roberts stars as Mary Reilly, a placid but troubled housemaid in Dr. Jeckyll's household, who becomes his favorite servant and love interest. Dr. Jeckyll wants her, but he's too polite. Mr. Hyde won't allow social formality to upset him, and aggressively seduces Reilly. That's the complete story, told over two long and unbelievably ponderous hours.

While audiences may feel in the dark when it comes to this film, it is really the filmmakers who appear to be flailing away in confusion. They have mysteriously decided to fashion a film out of nothing, disregarding the notion of subplots or rising conflicts to instead dwell on the landscape, the architecture, small talk at the breakfast table, the chef's activities, anything other than having to confront a moving story line.

At one point, the movie follows Reilly as she walks from her room, out into the courtyard, up the stairs into the doctor's laboratory, through the laboratory, into another room, over a chained platform, into another room, and then back again through it all in a sequence that must last fifteen minutes, the violin soundtrack squeaking away in dramatic bliss. Apparently, the filmmakers are simply trying to fill up time and they're hoping no one will notice. Sort of like repeatedly passing the same intersection in a taxicab, the driver hunkering down and turning up the radio.

The movie is directed by Stephen Frears, who previously helmed "Dangerous Liaisons," and he has reassembled much of that film's personnel. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot captures what little light is available and John Malkovich lends the film his trademark quiet, mysterious presence. Unfortunately, Malkovich is probably miscast as Jeckyll and Hyde, his smooth, careful approach a little too dainty for a mad scientist. Even Glenn Close makes an appearance as a brusk brothel mistress. This movie could have been titled "Dangerous Liaisons 2: The Case of Dr. Jeckyll," if all of the previous film's wit and intrigue were completely eviscerated.

Julia Roberts portrays Reilly as a sheepish, servile young woman with a troubled past. Her lukewarm performance, while being a little on the sheepish side itself, is most intriguing when what is presumably meant to be taken as a lower-class British accent sometimes lapses into something resembling Southern Tennessee dialect.

"Mary Reilly" is not a particularly bad film. No single element is too ridiculous on its own, the filmmakers simply didn't let the fact that they had no ideas for a plot keep them from making the movie. With its total emphasis on visual atmosphere and authentic settings, it would have profited from putting a lantern in the picture and giving the audience something to see.