RogerBW's Blog

Mary Reilly 06 June 2022

1996 romantic horror, dir. Stephen Frears, Julia Roberts, John Malkovich: IMDb / allmovie. Mary is a maid of all work in the household of one Dr Jekyll…

Two Golden Raspberry nominations, for Frears and Roberts, but David Thomson in Have You Seen…? rates it "the best version of the Jekyll and Hyde story ever put on the screen" – so I had to take a look.

Contemporary criticism focuses on Roberts being "miscast", but she was the highest-paid actress in the world at the time, and I think there's always a certain amount of resentment for someone who doesn't follow the rigid path of romcoms and romantic fluff until she's "too old" and (if lucky) moves to more serious roles. And Roberts here isn't doing that: she's deliberately de-glamourised, hair hidden, matte makeup, to make her look at least a bit plausibly like an undernourished Irish girl. Her acting is solid too, with a tension between the feelings she's suppressing and her fears should she even think too hard about acting on them: never mind being seduced and abandoned, if the butler (in this very small staff of five) thinks she's acting too uppity she could be out of the house and on the street before Jekyll could even hear about it and decide whether to save her.

Which Jekyll (Malkovich) clearly doesn't even realise: he sees someone he can regard as a kindred spirit, and simply doesn't notice – as he can afford not to – the power differential between them. I found Malkovich not entirely convincing, in particular never really filling out either side of the role into anything more than the basics; though at least he doesn't even try to be anything other than American, while Roberts' Irish-like accent drifts all over the place.

All right, this could have been a Tim Burton film, had he not walked off the project when his baby Ed Wood was put on the shelf, and that would probably have been better. But I really rather enjoyed it, apart from the one horrible misstep of the transformation scene which breaks any sense of drama one might have built up. The film in general is drab and understated, both visually (filmed largely in preserved Victorian houses with period furnishings) and in the acting, and I think I'm much more able to enjoy a film like that now than I should have been had I seen it when it came out.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin

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