Friday, January 15, 2010

MARY REILLY (Tri-Star Pictures 1996) Sony Home Entertainment

It's often been noted that great books don't necessarily translate into great movies; at least not verbatim. Often the transition from page to screen is tricky, particularly since novels deal more deeply - and arguably - intuitively with the inner workings of the human mind and heart.

Character studies, taken literally, have a tendency to poorly materialize into visual form. Such is the case with director Stephen Frear's literal approach to Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (1996); a thoroughly misguided attempt to re-envision the immortal Robert Lewis Stevenson Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of his devoted housemaid.

Previous film versions of Jekyll/Hyde have taken great liberties with the Stevenson tale - particularly the 1931 and '41 film versions that introduce the duality of the virgin/whore scenario by involving the good doctor with a virtuous fiancée and adulterous bar wench as he ricochets back and forth between his struggling dual personality.

Both female characterizations are not in Stevenson's novel. However, from a purely cinematic standpoint, they provide greater probing into the central character's emotional psyche as it spins wildly out of control.

Fredric March's iconic performance in the '31 version and Spencer Tracy's equally indelible turn in the '41 film are tough acts to follow. In Mary Reilly, eminent actor John Malkovich assumes the responsibilities of resurrecting Stevenson's ill stricken monster/hero. The tragedy is that he rarely rises above mediocrity in the part as either Jekyll or Hyde and never outperforms either previous actor in the role.

As the put upon maid, emotionally torn between her love for Jekyll and rather erotically explored fear of Mr. Hyde, Julia Roberts is clearly out of her depth; skulking about doorways and occasionally casting petrified glances as though she were a deer caught in the head lamps of an oncoming semi.

The story opens with Mary Reilly meticulously scrubbing the front stoop of her employer's residence. The script by Christopher Hampton goes to great pains in the following scenes to set up Mary's neurotic compulsion to be the perfect servant, though she occasionally clashes with Jekyll's staunch butler, Mr. Poole (George Cole) in matters of social propriety and decorum.

The first forty minutes of the film are almost entirely devoted to Mary's perceptions of the household. We see Malkovich in only brief glances as Dr. Jekyll and never as Mr. Hyde.
Jekyll sends Mary with a letter of recommendation to the bordello of Mrs. Faraday (Glenn Close); an embittered madam who delights in taunting Mary while she awaits her written reply. It seems Jekyll is interested in renting a room at the house of ill repute for his assistant, Mr. Hyde.

However, when Faraday sends for Jekyll after Hyde has butchered one of her working girls, Mary arrives with a particular sum of money instead, and, is shown to the room where the carnage has taken place. It is drenched in blood - the one truly shocking moment in an otherwise painfully mundane film. Later, Faraday arrives at Jekyll's residence to demand more money for her continued silence. Jekyll promises it; then, transforms into Hyde and murders Faraday in his laboratory.

From here the story takes a different approach - with Hyde emerging to take the doctor's place and toying with Mary's affections at every opportunity. However, Malkovich's Hyde is not depicted - either visually or through action - as the hump back half animal with a ravenous sexual libido, as was his previous acting peers endeavor; rather, as a younger version of the doctor - mildly discontent and sexually playful, at least where Mary Reilly is concerned.

Malkovich's take on both Hyde and Jekyll are remarkably similar in tone. As such, the tension of 'will he or won't he?' harm Mary as Hyde is utterly diffused, leaving a carefully calculated game of manners as its emotionless fallout.

There's really not much more to say about the film. In its last act, Hyde inexplicably murders Sir Danvers Carew (Ciaran Hinds). In both the 1931 and '41 film versions, Carew is the devoted husband and respectable father of Jekyll's fiancée - hence his murder by Hyde is heinous as it represents Hyde's ability to slaughter the idealism that Jekyll idolized.

It is important to note that Mary Reilly's version of Carew - as a derelict member of parliament who wantonly frequents Mrs. Faradays for casual sex is in keeping with Stevenson's novelized original and, more to the point, the characterization in Martin's novel from whence - more directly - this film's plot derives.

What is problematic is Carew's murder by Hyde - since there has been no direct interaction between Jekyll and Carew throughout the film. As such, Carew's death is needless, pointless and deprived of all but its momentary shock value as Hyde burrows the steel tip of Jekyll's walking stick into Carew's cheek. For those seeking an engaging film version of Stevenson's classic tale, this reviewer's advice is to seek it elsewhere. Mary Reilly is two hours of your life that you can never get back.

Sony Home Entertainment's DVD transfer (under the old Columbia Tri-Star marketing banner) is somewhat disappointing. The stylized image, with its desaturated color palette, appears to suffer from lower than expected contrast levels. The results are a softly focused visual presentation where darker scenes register as a muddy mess of indistinguishable grey-blues and brownish blacks. Thankfully, edge enhancement is not an issue. Flesh tones are somewhat pasty. The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and a 2.0 stereo version. Extras include trailers and a brief 'making of' featurette. Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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