PERHAPS MOTHER!, that self-gormandizing envisaging of Roman Polanski’s Stardust Memories as an all-you-can-swallow buffet of metaphysical leftovers and creamed corn à la mode, left you unsatisfied. Then Stephen Frears’s much-maligned and oft-magnificent Mary Reilly (1996) is the perfect Goth-Hitchcock antidote. A subliminally satirical reworking of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale from Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Mary Reilly is a batty extension of their previous Dangerous Liaisons into the overlapping terrain of Victorian manners and sexual horror. The film is a world of interlocking chambers and Promethean vanity: Genteel bachelor household, private medical theater/laboratory, brothel, abattoir, tenement flat, morgue, every space is a heated serving tray in a smorgasbord of denial, violation, and corruption.
Exultantly returning from Liaisons, John Malkovich as Jekyll/Hyde does an indecorous, music-hall double-act, a continuum of foppish manners and Byronic flouting. (Dr. J: “What’s the difference between a vivisectionist and a libertine?” Mr. H: “Practice, my good fellow, practice!”) Disintegration for him/them amounts to an epistemological project: Taking off from Stevenson’s “strange case” to wander alleys and byways with the connoisseurship of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Mary Reilly (a name recalling the creator of another Eminent Promethean) isn’t about the Victorian era in actuality but instead as it exists in the pop imagination. A conflation of ragtag-team archetypes—Victorian, Romantic, Edwardian, and beyond—comes together for a literate free-for-all: Jekyll and Hyde sucker-punching Beauty and the Beast, Freud and Jack the Ripper bloodying Dickens and Wilde.
In that register, Glenn Close (another Liaisons liaison) plays a nefarious madam as a Kabuki-Cockney slattern: hardly more than a cameo, but stoked with leering parodic genius. Playing opposite Malkovich, however, is Julia Roberts, a piece of miscasting on par with putting Courtney Love in a My Fair Lady reboot. At least ten years too old for the Irish servant girl, through whose wounded bird’s-eye view we see Jekyll House, she’s a flustered extraterrestrial in search of solid footing and a steady accent. (Malkovich’s accent is equally undetermined, just more insouciant.) But the intensity of their non-chemistry somehow serves the narrative’s overall perversity, inoculating the characters against backsliding into “relatability” or romance-novel postures. Social distance is maintained amid quasi-intimacies, as the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of master and servant veers into the realm of Families Without Boundaries: Paternal Dr. Jekyll nurturing Mary’s nascent personal development, Bad Brother Hyde prepping the once-victimized girl for further rounds of molestation.
The doctor’s interest in Mary is first piqued when he spies tooth scars on her neck. He’ll patiently break down her reticence until, in flashback, she reveals how her abusive drunk of a father punished her as a child by locking her in a closet with a sack of rats. Eating their way through the burlap, they disfigure and nearly kill her. Being fed to rats is a brutal analogue to incest—while reminding that abuse doesn’t have to be sexual to be unthinkable. Much of Mary Reilly happens off-screen, or in dark corners, cramped quarters, quivering under laboratory stairs. The audience, knowing the basic story in advance, gets to think its privy to more than Mary is, but the feeling of being steps ahead of her is tenuous. Frears maneuvers the poor lass through a dismaying maze of terror and arousal—suddenly she’ll find herself thumbing through a huge anatomy book Hyde has defaced with obscene drawings and ludicrous comments. News of her mother’s death sets her reeling back into the bowels of destitution, arranging the funeral with a hideous landlord who has already sold off the dead woman’s possessions to cover the back rent (with a shilling to spare). He’s stashed the rigid corpse in a closest for safekeeping—seemingly identical to the one Mary was once locked in with the rats.
In such moments, the old story breaks apart and new ones surface: Pushed out of her comfort zone, Roberts lends Mary’s desperation an awkward, quizzical blankness. No charm or charisma, just a head-down stratagem for endurance in a world where she doesn’t trust herself or her surroundings. It’s an unsentimental movie set in a culture where love and pity look interchangeable, and virtue’s an elaborate artifice, so sadism assumes the form of morality. Once the walls of propriety are breached, nothing pretty or noble will come of it: Knowledge facilitates destruction and the best our shaky heroine can manage is survival.
What Frears accomplished with Mary Reilly suggests an updating of what Jacques Tourneur did in his suspenseful, dreamy Val Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Like Tourneur, Frears’s career as a hired gun has casually toggled between the extraordinary and the workaday. Anyone who can slip-slide among The Hit, High Fidelity, Philomena, My Beautiful Laundrette, Gumshoe, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, and Prick Up Your Ears has an uncanny adaptability. A director who can do reasonable justice to both Joe Orton and Queen Elizabeth deserves a special medal.
Mary Reilly employs classic Hollywood studio-craft and rings just enough stereotypical bells: George Fenton’s score puts scare quotes around “lush,” all red velvet and swooning angst. For all the outrageousness of Malkovich’s antics, while blood overflows slaughterhouse gutters and gushes down marketplace steps, these flights are held in place by the sturdy Britishness of the supporting players. Paragons straight from Central Casting, George Cole as the head butler and Kathy Staff (perfect name) as the cook italicize their roles to the degree they might have been plucked out of just about any London-set prestige picture from 1935 onward. A young Michael Sheen brings a pinch of musical-comedy cheekiness as a randy junior servant, while as Mary’s vile father, the great Michael Gambon dives into the part with such slimy gusto he could be auditioning for a Dennis Potter version of Oliver.
Technical assurance is essential: Mary Reilly is all about mise-en-scène made flesh and vice-versa. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography embodies the film’s expansive claustrophobia. Stuart Craig’s production design, especially of Jekyll’s laboratory/operating theater and the network of catwalks designed for peekaboo chases, is integral to its labyrinthine quality. That Craig would go on to do the production for the entire run of the Harry Potter movies is a wonderful sick joke in and of itself. Frears’s film is a riposte to all the credulous, militantly innocent works of this New Victorian era, our Age of the Permanent Young Adult: Harry and Beauty and the Fantastic Beasts and the meta-execrable Twilight films. Against that backdrop, Mother! is mere art-film fan fiction (or fan-fiction art film?), but Mary Reilly leaves deep little hickeys.
Mary Reilly is available on Blu-ray October 17, 2017.