Monday, June 7, 2010

Mary Reilly

Gothic horror.  The phrase immediately brings to my mind heavy shadows, forbidden longings and the time when morality and science were often completely opposed. If you give me a few more seconds to think about it, though, I might imagine fat kids with dyed black hair, eyeliner, stocking sleeves and combat boots that make me wish that I didn't like the Cure.

Those seemingly disparate ideas are not as separate as I might want to believe.  For every good Gothic horror story (Dracula, Frankenstein, From Hell - the comic), there is a crappy bastardization on film (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, From Hell - the movie).  All play with the same basic set of tools (science vs. superstition, dark vs. light, love vs. seduction), but the Hollywood versions in the 1990s consistently missed the mark.  Mary Reilly is a novel that offers an different point of view on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It doesn't try to change much of the story, but offers some alternate motivations for the Jekyll/Hyde character.

The movie Mary Reilly attempts to do the same by shifting the narrative focus onto the shoulders of the title character.  Mary Reilly (Julia Roberts) is one of many servants in the Jekyll household.   I'm going to assume that anyone vaguely interested in this movie has a passing familiarity with Jekyll and Hyde, as an idea if not as literature, because the movie makes this assumption as well.  But, just to clarify, Dr. Jekyll is a middle-aged (maybe a little older) scientist that is brilliant and kind; unfortunately, he represses his emotions (which was the style at the time) and begins to long for a way to release them.  He creates a drug that transforms him into Mr. Hyde, a younger, more virile persona that is essentially Jekyll's Id unleashed.  Hyde's appearance varies from version to version, but he is always the lusty, violent side of Jekyll.  So, while that story is playing out in the background, Mary Reilly does her household chores, encountering Jekyll and Hyde from time to time.  She spends most of her time carrying food trays and gathering laundry.  Oh, the suspense exclamation mark three times.

Mary draws the attention of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) when he notices some scars on Mary that are clearly from animal bites.  Initially too shy or socially reserved to tell her story, Mary later relates how her abusive father (Michael Gambon) once locked her in a closet with rats, which bit her many times.  When Jekyll asks if she hates her father for what he did, Mary refuses to hate; she reasoned that alcohol made him into a monster, one that acted, spoke, and even walked differently than her sober father.  This really hits home for Jekyll.  I think.  The camera holds a few extra beats of Jekyll staring with his mouth slightly open at this point, but Malkovich doesn't really emote much here.  Mr. Hyde (still Malkovich) also pays Mary special attention.  He enjoys flirting with her and making her uncomfortable.  He is rude and arrogant around her.  Presumably, this is because Jekyll is attracted to Mary, but cannot express himself properly.  Eventually, Hyde appears more and more, until he murders an important man in broad daylight in the streets of London for no reason.  And that's the movie.

I really want to point out this movie's flaws, but I'm going to start out positive.  John Malkovich is a good actor who can play an emotionally reserved man as easily as he can a jerk.  I thought the differentiation between the Jekyll and Hyde characters (vocal tones, facial expressions) was pretty decent.  I'm glad that at least one character (but sadly, only one character) pointed out the visual similarities between Jekyll and Hyde --- and yes, that is a poodle-haired Michael Sheen making that comment.  I liked Jekyll's laboratory, although it was unnecessarily weird; I get having the operating room be an auditorium, but there is no reason for the walkway into the lab to have been a suspended chain bridge.  That's just not practical.  As far as the acting goes, Michael Gambon did a decent job of being a disgusting, abusive drunk.  I thought Glenn Close's performance was muy macho, and it was brave of her to play a Victorian brothel-owning transvestite.  Oh, wait... she was supposed to be a woman?  With that accent?  And that Jay Leno chin?  That can't be right...

...And that's the best this movie has to offer.  Why is that, you ask?  Well, for starters, Julia Roberts was cast in the lead role.  I have nothing against Roberts, although I will admit that she does not usually star in movies that I desperately want to see.  This role goes against her strengths, though.  Julia Roberts is at her best when she is smiling and charming audiences.  Here, her performance reminds me of something I heard in The Goonies cast/director commentary; apparently,director Richard Donner's most common directorial instruction to his cast of child actors was "big eyes."  Julia Roberts channels that direction in this movie like no other.  She spends most of the movie looking like a Precious Moments doll, particularly one commemorating the moment when a child watched its dog get hit by a train.  I kept wanting to staple her lower lip to her face so she wouldn't keep tripping over than damn thing.  I get that working for Jekyll and Hyde doesn't make for slapstick comedy, but even servants have more than one emotion.  And that is just her character's normal state!  Eventually, she has a nightmare where Hyde begins to rape her, but when she wakes up screaming, her roommate tells Mary that the dream didn't sound bad to her.  That implies that Mary had a Hyde rape fantasy.  Finally, a movie that has the guts to stand up for rape.  Three cheers for rape!  In a related note, no matter how hard I scrub, I don't feel clean.

John Malkovich is not at his best here, either.  For a movie that is very British and very Victorian England, John's accent has attendance problems, to put it mildly.  I also find it hard to believe that anyone could  look at Malkovich's Jekyll and Hyde and not immediately conclude that they are the same person, or, at the very least, siblings.  Hyde has longer hair and no beard.  Aside from that, he still looks and speaks like Jekyll.  And I don't care what time period it is, John Malkovich is not someone that inspires dark, erotic dreams (I typed those words, but the only thing that made me feel better when I read it back was scraping my tongue).  I also didn't care for the way Hyde's crimes were handled.  In the original story, only the final murder is clearly a crime; the rest of Hyde's activities might have ranged from fairly innocent fare, such as staying out late in the city, drinking to excess, and sleeping with women of questionable morals to the more grisly stuff, like violence and murder.  Here, it is primarily a blood lust, which cheapens the character in my mind.  Also, the first evidence of violence shows Hyde's bedroom covered in blood, with only an animal's carcass (possibly a rat's) to imply that the blood is not human; the effect, however, is for the scene to resemble an act of beastiality gone horribly wrong (not that I'm judging).  Hyde then goes on to decapitate someone off camera and murders a man with a cane handle.  While not particularly fun to watch, there is little or no suspense, horror, or Gothic-ness in any of these scenes.  In fact, they come off as little more than disagreeable.

The biggest problem with this movie (aside from the two actors and their characters) is the subtlety of the film.  I rarely accuse any movie of being too subtle, but this movie never comes out and says anything.  I assume that Jekyll and Hyde have an emotional or sexual attraction for Mary Reilly, but I just don't know for sure.  This movie stays true to the Victorian way of not letting emotions show, but that really cramps a film's style when those same emotions are implied to be the motivating factors for the climax of the film.

The film was directed by Stephen Frears, a man that is capable of greatness (High Fidelity, anyone?).  Surely, his direction can be seen in Roberts' performance and the overall feel of the movie.  It is rare that I say this about a director that has talent, but either he missed every mark he set for this film, or he didn't aim for the right things.  This was painful to watch.  It wasn't until I was finished watching the movie that I realized that the movie's tag line ("Evil loves innocence") didn't refer to Jekyll/Hyde and Mary, but to the film and its audience.

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