Mary Reilly
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Credit: TriStar Pictures

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been done to death — until 'Mary Reilly' transformed the tale

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Feb 22, 2021, 2:54 PM EST (Updated)

There's a scene in 1991's forgotten crime comedy The Object of Beauty in which John Malkovich's broke commodities broker ponders, "How many times can they remake Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?" It's a fair question considering there'd been more than two dozen film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic novella. Yet just five years later, director Stephen Frears' Mary Reilly (which ironically starred Malkovich) proved that not every story about the mad scientist had been told. And as its title suggests, neither of his personalities takes center stage.

Instead, the descent of Dr. Jekyll is viewed through the lens of his housemaid, a dowdy, downtrodden young Irishwoman with significant scars both emotional and physical. "Dowdy" sure isn't a word you'd typically associate with Julia Roberts, the rom-com queen with a literal million-dollar smile. Yet she still pipped several other glamorous A-listers — Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder, and Nicole Kidman were all rumored to have been in contention for the movie, which turns 25 this week — for the role that was more Plain Jane than Pretty Woman.

Mary Reilly was the first of three 1996 movies in which Roberts appeared to make a conscious effort to subvert her girl-next-door persona. In the historical biopic Michael Collins, she played the titular revolutionary's strong-willed girlfriend Kitty Kiernan, and then in the musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You, she got the chance to showcase her singing abilities as a neurotic New Yorker wooed by Woody Allen. Mary Reilly was also by far the most savaged of these films, resulting in a measly box office haul of $12.4 million (from a $47 million budget), and both Frears and Roberts picking up nominations at the Razzies.

Much of the ire toward Roberts' performance was directed at the accent that's befallen many an American talent. But although her Irish timbre doesn't particularly convince — more so when she's playing opposite native Bronagh Gallagher — it's not in the realm of famed all-time manglings such as Tom Cruise in Far and Away or Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You. Bizarrely, Roberts is far more "top o' da mornin' to ya" in Michael Collins.

Admittedly, it still remains a mystery as to why Roberts actually signed up for the part. She reportedly took a hefty pay cut from her usual $15 million salary and potential awards glory seems an unlikely factor: the scenery-chewing monologues typically favored by the Academy are nowhere to be found. Questionable accents aside, though, Roberts isn't as miscast as the scathing reviews suggest.

With her signature auburn locks largely covered up by a bonnet and her complexion made to look paler than a glass of milk, it's easy to forget you're watching a Hollywood superstar in action. Roberts also shrinks into the role of a Victorian so repressed that she responds to her mother's death in the same way she does breaking a cup. Delivering each line in a hushed, near-apologetic manner, the actress manages to convey both the quiet attraction and the simmering repulsion Mary has for the men, or rather man, she's employed to serve.

Mary, whose origins stem from Valerie Martin's 1990 same-named novel, initially makes for a frustratingly passive heroine. She's entirely subservient to Mr. Poole (George Cole), the jobsworth butler seemingly hellbent on making her already glum existence just that little bit more joyless. She fails to ask any questions about the blood she keeps finding splattered around Jekyll's living and working quarters. She can't even bring herself to hate the depraved father who once locked her in a cellar with a ravenous rodent.

It's on hearing about how Mary has handled the trauma of her abusive childhood, though, that Jekyll becomes even more intrigued about his most shy and retiring member of staff. If she can forgive the man whose actions still give her night terrors, then maybe she'll be willing to accept the monster that lurks within him?

Much to Mr. Poole's dismay, the famously reclusive Jekyll subsequently gives Mary more access, not only to his own day-to-day life but his Jack the Ripper-esque alter ego's, too. It's here that the housemaid gains more agency, whether she's putting her immediate superior in his place, arranging her mother's funeral, or, for reasons even she doesn't quite understand, covering for a murderous Hyde.

Interestingly, the last of Hyde's many killings is the only one that's seen on screen. Sure, we witness several dead bodies and even the odd decapitated head — including Mrs. Faraday's, the brothel owner played by a hammy Glenn Close wearing enough makeup to sink a ship. However, Frears, who replaced Tim Burton in the director's chair late in the day, is more interested in his leading lady putting the pieces together than showing the dastardly deeds in gruesome detail.

What the gothic drama lacks in gore, it makes up for in eeriness. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot drenches the exterior scenes in a thick blanket of fog from the opening shot in which Mary scrubs the doorsteps of Jekyll's charcoal-bricked home. With its ghostly empty courtyards and chain-suspended walkways, the building itself is just as creepy. Few mainstream horrors have embraced such resolutely glum aesthetics.

Hyde's final mutation back from lecherous sociopath to mild-mannered physician — the first time both Mary and the audience get to observe such a transformation — is also an impressive piece of body horror as Jekyll's head and limbs begin to protrude out of his screaming counterpart's frame. You can't blame Mary for recoiling.

It's to Malkovich's credit that Mary's discovery that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same still comes across as a convincing shock to her system. We can all see that the pair look exactly alike, save for the latter sporting some blue contacts, longer locks, and less dodgy facial hair. Even footman Bradshaw (Michael Sheen in an early role) questions whether Hyde is Jekyll's illegitimate son.

Yet the thespian draws enough distinctions between the dual personalities to make Mary's unawareness seem believable rather than downright embarrassing. Of course, she ends up with neither, walking off into the mist-filled streets of London after Hyde fatally poisons Jekyll, and ultimately himself, just moments after nearly cutting her throat in order to guarantee her safety ("I always knew you'd be the death of us," he dramatically declares).

TriStar Pictures reportedly hated the downbeat ending, one of many filmed during the troubled shoot, so much they disowned the picture. Still, it's one in keeping with the film's fresh, feminist-lite perspective; it's not clear where Mary's heading, but for the first time in her life, she's without a man to answer to. Turns out there was at least one more Jekyll and Hyde remake worth making.