25 years ago, Mary Reilly was released, a film based on the novel by Valerie Martin – an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Unfortunately however, it would receive a scathing response from both critics alike, despite its star pulling power from its leads Julia Roberts and John Malkovich. It would also see the reteaming of Malkovich with Glenn Close and director Stephen Frears, who worked together on the highly successful Dangerous Liasons.
Many critics claim that they were struck down with boredom and there were rumours abound that both Roberts and Malkovich were estranged on set.
What may have not helped matters was that only a few years earlier Francis Ford Coppola directed his take on another Gothic classic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Kenneth Brannagh also directed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, both semi faithful to their respective texts, so some audiences may have expected some of the same, despite Mary Reilly being a very different kind of story.
So, did these initial thoughts hold merit or were the audience at the time misguided by their misguided expectations?
On face value, the pace is indeed slow and meandering, which instinctively would turn people astray, especially if they were hoping for some high tempo, doom and gloom affair that would represent the Gothic era.
This is a tale with a different bent though, where the subject matter is told by an observer (the titular Mary Reilly) as opposed to the first person narrative that is usually associated with the story as told by Dr. Jekyll.
There were slings and arrows cast at the questionable choice of Julia Roberts in the lead role, playing Mary. an Irish lass, who has only known humanities suffering in life, brought up impoverished and neglected, forced to earn a living as a maid-in-waiting. Her mental scars make her the perfect subject for Dr. Jekyll’s own fascination into the dark psyche of the mind.
In some ways I can understand the ferocity of the audience’s convictions, when surely someone who could pull off a decent accent and a more believable reflection of someone who was brought up from poor stock. Roberts never quite conveys this to the audience, but to be nominated for the Razzie Awards for Worst Actress seems a bit harsh as there are some genuine moments that you can feel the pain etched on her face.
Malkovich seems content to play what some feel is a monotonous performance, but personally I like his subtle changes and inflections in his delivery and none-more-so than when he brings the ghastly Mr Hyde to the fore. Along with it the darkest side of humanity into a world that would be shocked by his demeanour.
Glenn Close’s role too as the Mrs Farraday, a madam of notorious whorehouse, who also harbours the secret comings and goings of Mr. Hyde’s curious pleasures are simply wonderful, proving that she always adds strength and worth to her performances. It’s a shame then, that she is underused in this instance as it would have been fascinating to see her bring that weight into the fold more often.
Lastly, comes the hand and vision of Director Stephen Frears, who also found himself at the mercy of a Razzy Award nomination. Again, I argue if this is merited. Perhaps I should confess here how much I really adore Frears early works, My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liasons, and The Grifters. And when you cast your eye against some of his latter work, admittedly Mary Reilly pales in comparison, but deep in its heart is a film that deserves second viewing.
If you can subject yourself to the laborious way the tale is told and sure, that dodgy accent, there is a beating and pained heart, driving the core theme of horror, which at first turns you away, but slowly the lure of the human behind the beast shines through. One that those who have damaged or been damaged can truly understand. These kindred people, united with a common trauma provide a fascinating subject. Frears may fall short on occasion with his delivery, but the journey still intrigues.
- Saul Muerte