Julia Roberts and John Malkovich in 'Mary Reilly'
Julia Roberts and John Malkovich in 'Mary Reilly'

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella on the duality of human personality, has been retold so often that we watch any new adaptation through layers of memory and expectation - rather like Fredric March's subliminal makeup in the 1932 version that became visible, and effected the onscreen transformation of the handsome doctor into his coarser counterpart, when the cameraman slipped the right filter in front of the lens.

Mary Reilly, based on a novel by Valerie Martin, both sidesteps and capitalizes on this familiarity by recasting the original tale from the point of view of a houseservant (Julia Roberts) in Jekyll's employ. Physically and emotionally scarred by a hellishly abusive father (Michael Gambon), and gifted with a grave, probing intelligence that sets her apart from her fellow minions, she attracts the master's (John Malkovich) attention and gradually becomes a spiritual anchor in his mysterious life - if never an explicit confidant in the goings-on behind his bright red laboratory door.

It is the film's assumption that we know "the story" - it lurks inside Mary Reilly as Jekyll's secret other self lurks inside him. The very design of the production underscores this interiority. Jekyll's house with its many tiers, an adjoining medical amphitheater that seems to extend deep underground yet also tower higher than the house itself, the small garden Mary cultivates against the morbid gray-on-gray gloom of the Scots climate and the killingly stratified Victorian society and the nameless, pressing metaphysical dread: everything seems consecrated to the purposes - the mood - of allegory and introspection.

Mary's personal story echoes and also tinctures Jekyll and Hyde's. In one stunning stylistic coup, the camera turns from Mary in bed, shuddering with a nightmare-memory, and slips through the window into the Edinburgh night. A child runs in the cobblestone street below, as if the adult Mary who has just been panned offscreen were now reborn as her childhood self, still trying to escape the parent's perversity that both maimed and defined her. But this is no dream image, and the child runs smack into the monstrous Mr. Hyde - a scene directly taken from the Stevenson novella. Elsewhere, in conversation with Jekyll, Mary confesses to a horrific fear of rats. Within moments we are witnessing the aftermath of an atrocity Hyde has perpetrated in a brothel - and the body of a rat lies mangled in the bloody bed.

Mary Reilly boasts an impressive pedigree. Director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, and production designer Stuart Craig all collaborated on 1988's superb Dangerous Liaisons, as did Malkovich and Glenn Close (keeper of the aforementioned brothel - a garish figure that suggests Close is now hooked on playing Norma Desmond). The film is finally too conceptualized, too relentlessly aphoristic, for its own good, but one element holds true. That, wondrous to relate, is Julia Roberts. Looking pale, fragile, and far from glamorous, her Mary is a portrait of intellectual honesty and moral courage - a hard-won triumph of (no other word will do) self-possession.

This was written for the website Mr. Showbiz, Feb. 23, 1996.