The stuffy clothes, the furtive repression, the Victorian drizzle and fog …. Mary Reilly will undoubtedly leave many people cold, but I snuggled into its bleakness. This film has been shot (by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) to be as black-and-white as a movie can possibly get and still be in color, and the world it shows us is one big grainy haze — the gray area between virtue and sin, love and horror. Mary Reilly deserves a bigger audience than it got in this country, not least because it offers Julia Roberts’ true breakthrough performance, with no glamour whatsoever but plenty of power.
Roberts gives herself totally to Mary Reilly, a maid in the house of Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Malkovich). Throughout the movie, Mary is like a frightened bird, always having her wings clipped by one abusive man or another. But Jekyll is kind to her, and he draws her into a small degree of intimacy by inquiring where she got the odd scars on her wrists and neck. He seems to respond to the pain and anger she carries around (but never expresses), but she doesn’t know what to make of the signals he’s sending.
It soon becomes clear that this gentle man of science is keeping a lid on a huge, steaming pot of sexual aggression. An assistant, Edward Hyde, enters the picture and …. Well, we know who Hyde actually is. But Mary doesn’t. Or does she? Director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton (who previously collaborated on Dangerous Liaisons) slyly suggest that Mary knows more than she lets on, even to us. Comforted by the tender Jekyll, attracted to the savage Hyde, Mary is as divided as the doctor himself. And both men need her desperately.
Mary Reilly probes the raw flesh under this woman’s sexual scars. The moviemakers, adapting Valerie Martin’s novel, imply that Mary’s preoccupation with her strange master is her way of empowering herself — allowing herself to be drawn to a man who is both dangerous and safe. In Mary’s tense moments of passion or peril, Roberts lets her face go utterly blank, a brave choice bound to be misinterpreted. Though her accent comes and goes, Roberts subtly communicates the shifting emotions of a woman shrinking in fear of herself. The beast in her is the Victorian beast of the sexual woman (embodied by Glenn Close in a sneering, mega-campy turn as a whorehouse madam).
As for Malkovich, his Hyde isn’t quite as creepy as you might hope. (His Jekyll is creepier, probably by design.) That dead voice he uses is effective but indifferent, as if he didn’t want to commit to his dialogue. And neither he nor Roberts can rescue the climax, which is far too literal (it reeks of studio meddling) and betrays the ambiguous tone the moviemakers have sustained so elegantly.
But even this parting shot in the foot doesn’t cripple the movie. Mary Reilly is a mood piece in grays and blacks; the only spots of vivid color are the flowers in Mary’s tiny garden and the blood of Englishmen (and women). Its one-two combo of hot desire and freezing rain gives you a Jekyll-Hyde fever.