A housemaid falls in love with Dr. Jekyll and his darkly mysterious counterpart, Mr. Hyde.
Every so often a film comes along that people are determined to hate. This was practically disowned by its studio after disputes with the director, and victim of unanimously contemptuous reviews and an indecently hasty exit from theatres. And yet there's a lot to admire.Valerie Martin's original novel is a daring, brilliant and thoughtful embroidery on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, freshening up the story by presenting it through the eyes of a maidservant in the Jekyll household. Its stroke of genius, employed cleverly in the film, is that everyone knows the solution to the mystery, but you can see how Mary could never possibly guess (that Dr Jekyll is Mr Hyde).
You spend the whole film knowing what the characters are thinking (very subtle direction sets up complex relationships) but also where they are wrong, and how tragic the consequences might be.
The down side is that neither lead performer quite works. Julia Roberts is physically right, and the reining-in of her usual big grin and big hair to suggest how downtrodden Mary has been is very moving, but her Irish always sounds strangled, especially when sharing scenes with Bronagh Gallagher. And John Malkovich's prissy, Canadian-sounding Jekyll and leering, nasal Hyde are also somewhat hit-and-miss readings of great roles.
What tips the scales in Mary Reilly's favour is that, in an era when Bram Stoker's Dracula, Interview With The Vampire and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein desperately try to sell themselves as romantic melodramas or literary adaptations, this isn't afraid to be a horror movie. The characters have more depth than Hammer would allow, but there are genuinely shocking moments (Hyde's appearance in Mary's bed, his trampling of a child, a hand grasping an ankle) and the dismal gloom of Jekyll's house, with its neglected courtyard and clanking chain-supported bridges, affords an atmosphere of real dread.
You won't easily forget the wriggling, symbolic eel or the buckets of blood poured on the stairs, and there's even a touch of Gothic camp in Glenn Close's scarlet madam. Overall, worth giving a second chance.
Reviewed by Kim Newman