Is there a movie in recent memory with a gloomier set of characters than Mary Reilly? When we first see Julia Roberts, she's on her hands and knees, scrubbing a sidewalk somewhere in Victorian London. The walk is the color of charcoal, the buildings are charcoal, even the air is charcoal; no wonder she looks depressed. Roberts' Mary Reilly, who has been in service since she was 12, is a thin, frightened wisp of a young woman with a face so milky pale it stands out from her surroundings like a moon glowing through haze. Anyone eager for a glimpse of the famous Roberts smile those luscious wax lips come to life had better look elsewhere. In Mary Reilly, the lips are taut and nervous, drawn into a stoic line of woe. Her eyes gleam with trepidation.
Mary's employer, Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Malkovich), is involved in a series of secretive experiments that appear to have intensified his already morose nature. A dour, fastidious chap, too repressed to realize that his attachment to Mary is rooted in his attraction to her, Jekyll has a head of thick graying hair and wears an unflattering goatee; he looks like a hedgehog in midlife crisis. Malkovich, speaking in a lazy American accent, lets his lines dribble out slowly, syllable by syllable, the words pitched in some emotional twilight zone between apathy and contempt. He sounds like a hypnotist who's trying to put the audience (if not himself) to sleep. Of course, we know what Mary doesn't: that Jekyll, on the nights he drinks his experimental potion, is transformed into Mr. Hyde sexy, confident, murderous, the room-trashing id hovering beneath Jekyll's cloak of propriety.
Both Mary and Dr. Jekyll are such sodden spirits that for the first 45 minutes of Mary Reilly we're strung along by our anticipation of Hyde's appearance; he would seem to be just the bad boy to get this party started. Finally, he shows up. It's Malkovich again, clean-shaven now, with a mop of jet-black rock-star hair but damned if he doesn't look pretty much the same as Jekyll and speak in an identical fey monotone. Malkovich does his version of an amorous leer (he appears to have just eaten his young), but there's no demonic joy to his performance. His Hyde, at best, seems like a somewhat less tormented Dr. Jekyll. Directed by Stephen Frears, from a script by Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Valerie Martin), Mary Reilly sounded like a promising idea the Jekyll-and-Hyde saga told from his housekeeper's point of view but the film's chief novelty turns out to be its drab ''literary'' approach to horror. Instead of tapping the theatrical heart of the material, Frears and Hampton reduce the three major characters to drawing-room stiffs who sit around explaining their passion instead of acting on it.
For most of the movie, Jekyll and Hyde engage in windy Freudian dialectics about civilization and desire, the imprisonment of the soul, and so forth. This gothic puffery isn't new; it's the sort of thing that used to pad out the old, thriller-diller Hollywood versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (You can't blame Malkovich for sounding bored.) Frears and Hampton previously collaborated on Dangerous Liaisons, a movie with nasty shards of wit (and a supremely energized Malkovich performance), but in Mary Reilly their work has a paralyzing earnestness. Mary has been given a dysfunctional Dickensian past her father was a drunk who beat her and the picture is held together not by fear or suspense but by a single, thudding irony: the fact that Mary doesn't realize that Jekyll and Hyde are the same man. For the irony to produce drama, however, we need to feel that Mary too is torn between them, divided between the light and dark sides of herself. In Mary Reilly, the passion we see isn't light or dark it's just dead gray. C-