After a glance at Mary Reilly, it becomes clear that the film's American financiers were terrified at what they had: a bleak period "romance" devoid of actual sex directed by a critically acclaimed (but commercially unreliable) Brit, and starring one of the few American actresses who can open a film.
The movie won't do much for Roberts' fading box-office appeal (nor will her recent cameo on the insipid TV sitcom Friends); but for filmgoers who like their classics spiced with old-fashioned gotcha scare-film techniques and even more old-fashioned sexual subtlety, Mary Reilly blossoms like a thorny rose.
The original source material for the film is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it was the scintillating interpretation by Southern novelist Valerie Martin that screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Carrington, Total Eclipse) adapted. Martin treads the same literary field as the late British writer Angela Carter: erotic retellings of classical tales that illuminate the female perspective in disquieting ways.
Mary Reilly channels the Jekyll and Hyde fable through the tormented psyche of one woman: Mary (Roberts), a meek housemaid in 19th-century England who serves the gentle, disturbed, reclusive Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich, in a characteristically precocious performance) with all the enthusiasm a crush can deliver. The rest of the house staff view Mary and Jeckyll's relationship with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy, but it's the flirtatious Jekyll who continually fires Mary's devotion.
Her embers glow an even brighter red upon meeting the doctor's crude, caustic "assistant," Mr. Hyde (Malkovich in longer, darker hair). Always a snoop among the great literature Jekyll keeps in his enormous library, Mary stumbles upon a medical book desecrated by Hyde with profanity and drawings of erect penises. Initially repulsed, she begins to fantasize about the brutal Hyde even as her daytime dedication dictates she care for the weakening Jekyll.
Although hardly doctrinaire, Mary Reilly can be labeled feminist in the way it explores the massive spectrum of one peasant woman's sexuality. Because this is accomplished without Roberts once being forced to strip for the cameras, you have to applaud the filmmakers--and sympathize with nervous American studios which must decide how to market a sexual flick that features no sex.
The pivotal element added by novelist Martin and screenwriter Hampton is an explicit reference to the childhood of Mary Reilly, who was brutalized early by her drunken father (Michael Gambon from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). What Mary refers to as "the darkness" her father put inside her is actually the film's brave central theme: the inextricable link between a person's earliest sexual experiences, however tortured, and adult desires. The harrowing girlhood trauma Mary undergoes--which includes being locked inside a crawlspace with ferocious rats who leave permanent, disfiguring bite marks on her neck and arms--is the source of both her proud steeliness and swooning vulnerability.
John Malkovich doesn't try to steal the camera with the dual role of Jekyll-Hyde, and bully for him, because he is essentially a supporting character in one woman's psychosexual melodrama. There is a thin, even blurry, line between his benevolent Jekyll and cruel, horny Hyde. Malkovich doesn't emphasize the "good vs. evil" dichotomy that Robert Louis Stevenson strove to dramatize, because Malkovich understands that the real struggle lies inside a low-class woman who yearns to rise above her station but can't deny her impulse to be dominated.
As Mary, Julia Roberts navigates a shaky Cockney accent (which co-star Malkovich doesn't even attempt), but rescues her performance with a laser-eyed conviction. Throughout the film, Mary is subject to the indignities routinely visited on servants of the period. The instinctive Roberts slowly builds a monument to bravery as her character is pushed toward ever bolder acts by desire for Jekyll-Hyde. She is one of the few popular actresses today who can match any actor gaze for gaze in a confrontational moment; Roberts' deep, dark brown eyes reflect and challenge at the same time.
Mary Reilly is probably destined for the financial failure its initial buzz predicted, but for all the wrong reasons. Director Stephen Frears, who cut his teeth on fine television drama at the BBC but became tangled in the politics of Hollywood commercialism, may never want to return to these shores. Perhaps Mary Reilly will be rediscovered by future critics, but for now, it strikes a provocative blow against the pressures of the marketplace.
Mary Reilly. TriStar. Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Michael Gambon. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Valerie Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Now showing.