Stephen Frears' "Mary Reilly" moves slowly but surely. It knows where it's going, and that's straight to the heart of horror.
Everything in the film is dank and cold as a public urinal in a highway road stop in Massachusetts in November. Ostensibly a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," once memorably filmed with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman against a backdrop of gaslit Victoriana, Frears makes it feel hardly English at all.
This Doc Jekyll and his bad-boy-inside Hyde seem far more Germanic in temperament, something out of the seething unconscious of a culture that was to produce in short order both Sigmund Freud and Adolf Hitler.
In fact, so ascetic is Frears' vision of Victorian Scotland (the film's locale has been moved to Edinburgh, not that you can tell on screen) that it's almost unrecognizable, except for one or two uncharacteristic street scenes.
In all other respects, the production could have been designed by the same twisted genius of German expressionism that gave us "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" so many years ago. The streets are usually barren of life; the architecture has a weird, cruel cant to it when it's not lost in the fog. Paltry groupings of black-garbed citizens hurry as if, when the sun goes down, the vampires and the rippers will start to feed.
The central character is the only just slightly overmatched Julia Roberts, as Mary Reilly, the Irish downstairs maid in Dr. Jekyll's decorous, but frostily pristine, manse on the Ringstrasse -- no, no, make that some little Scottish street. Roberts has a wan voice, and her Irish accent goes hither and yon and sometimes comes out pure Georgian; but she has great eyes, eyes the size of big black 8-balls, and about as glossy and troubled.
They have much to be troubled about. For she knows that "the master," Dr. Jekyll, seems to have the vapors. He works late at night in what everyone in the movie amusingly calls his "laBORatory," and sometimes she hears screams and yelps behind locked doors. And sometimes she spies a limping figure creeping in by the side door late at night. And one morning she discovers a bloody handkerchief.
Of course, no one screams and yelps better than John Malkovich, who worked with both Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton on the classic "Dangerous Liaisons," and Frears is wise enough to let Malkovich pretty much go. What's so brilliant about Malkovich and what makes him so appropriate to this project is that he, among all actors, is able to convey the inner agony of repression in a cold-blooded, anti-hysterical way.
And repression, of course, is both the actor's subtext and the author's text, for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," even when observed through the uncomprehending eyes of an Irish downstairs servant, is a meditation on the force that keeps us civilized but prevents us from having much fun at all.
It is Jekyll's conceit (and Stevenson's original, pre-Freudian stroke of genius) that the civilized being can be cored to liberate the uncivilized thing at center. And that thing, handsome, charming, bounding, brimming with energy and purpose, will of course be a creature of pure appetite and no impulse control.
Malkovich makes us believe in such a thing: His Dr. Jekyll is a haunted Dr. Frankenstein, an intellectual who renders all things to words and formulas except his own heart; he yearns for a touch of Mary's creamy skin, yet is too afraid to essay an attempt, spending himself in whorehouses instead. But transformed to Mr. Hyde, he's a black-tressed bounder, sexy as night itself, with piercing eyes and a whole new body and movement rhythm. For once, the absurdity of one being two separate and unidentifiable people seems a possibility rather than a bit of movie hooey.
The movie could generate more suspense. Evidently Mr. Hyde is a serial killer, yet there's no sense of panic, of a police network, or anything that recalls old mad Jack the R. himself; that sense of closing-in might have tightened the film a bit.
Instead, the film revolves around twin axes. The first is the Hyde-Jekyll quest for Mary, the one man repressed, the other depraved, yet both learning eventually (and touchingly) that they are not so totally separated as they thought.
The second, a modern addition not from Stevenson but from the source novel "Mary Reilly" by Valerie Martin, is Mary's own growing self-awareness and awareness of her own sexuality. She is given a terrible life history -- abuse of the most horrific kind, which has left her almost catatonic -- and the film, among other virtues, chronicles her own struggle toward selfhood even as her heart is being touched and broken by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The movie is mesmerizing in a low-impact kind of way; I could not look away, but I was never anywhere close to oxygen debt. It's a strong and memorable film, if a trifle slack in the telling.
Starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich
Directed by Stephen Frears
Released by TriStar
Rated R (violence, gore)
Sun score: ***