Flogging a dead horse

Mary Reilly is not the first film to offer a new gloss on an old tale. But can it hope to tell us anything we don't already know? By John Lyttle

It is one of the cardinal beliefs of high culture that within every story lurks infinite, inexhaustible possibilities. That a million, myriad yet somehow organic interpretations await inside, eager for release, ready to yield fresh insights - that stories (especially critically anointed stories) do not grow old, wither, and lose meaning. Interpretation is all.

This is, of course, simply not so. External factors - say, the passage of time - might often oblige us to view a "classic" narrative in a different way, or grant it a fleeting contemporary resonance, as occasionally a director's imposed vision will create the impression of rejuvenation, if not relevance (think of Stephen Daldry's dressy stage production of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls). Still, the truth is that texts can burn out and narratives do exhaust themselves (take Coppola's Dracula or Branagh's Frankenstein). Or, maybe it is just we who are exhausted. In our faster, frantic and increasingly fragmented multimedia world, we are less and less collaborators, and more and more consumers. Perhaps it is not the text that lacks imagination but us. And why expend precious effort on the old when there's always a bigger, better hype to distract our attention? Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, certainly a cynical boredom. Been there, done that, and is that all there is?

Which is one reason why we currently have the writer Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (see review) on screen instead of yet another "straight" remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. After at least 16 previous versions either told from Henry Jekyll's perspective, or taking his side (his good side), Mary Reilly is in the modish mannerof, well, a remix: the legend from the vantage point of an underhouse maid, played by Julia Roberts.

Seen through her eyes, the events of Robert Louis Stevenson's work are rethought and (nominally) renewed, yet challenged. What is first and foremost undermined is the notion of the author's voice as omnipotent, or as representing an objective "truth" - a convention we readily accept until our gullibility is exposed, as with The Usual Suspects, where reflex involvement in the text robs us of our capacity to recognise it as a lie. But then, isn't Mary Reilly's implicit purpose to prove all texts are lies, or at least economical with the "truth"?

It's not that Mary Reilly changes the "facts". The same plot unwinds. The facts remain but we are shown how facts, like the author's voice, are put together by perspective: by gender, by class, by age (and by the age), by politics etc. Facts are not "fixed".

Mary Reilly takes our weary knowledge of Stevenson's work as a given, which is why many of Hyde's deeds are here presented piecemeal, or not seen at all, Mary arriving at the scenes of the doppelganger's crimes to catch the aftermath. Thus Mary Reilly attempts to dissect the original while adding to it. For instance, Mary's position on the lowest rungs of the social ladder makes her take on Hyde's murder of a prostitute a surprisingly moral one, for Mary instinctively identifies with the abused girl's gory end. Mary could have just as easily drifted into prostitution as service.

Still, the very familiarity Mary Reilly trades in rebounds upon itself. The film, like the book, finally fails to extend our understanding of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It invokes grand intentions but literally doodles in the margins. Mary may grasp evil in a fashion Jekyll cannot but she, unlike him, has nothing to say about evil. It would be foolish to expect her to be original - Mary Reilly is a de facto admission that if "originality" is not a dead concept it's definitely a dumb one - but one can demand that she be interesting. Unfortunately, she's as much a spectator as the viewer. The picture comes on like a puzzle when there is no enigma to be solved. It doesn't revive its ailing franchise.

Jean Rhys did not make the same mistake. Her Wide Sargasso Sea, an exotic prequel to, and partial overlap with, Jane Eyre (Zeffirelli's production of which is currently proving the exhaustion theory by bombing Stateside), fills in the mystery at the heart of Charlotte Bronte's novel: Rochester's first wife, the mad woman in the attic. Antionette Cosway is an obvious candidate for fleshing out. How did she and Rochester meet? How did she become insane? Was her final, inflammatory act accidental or vengeful? Rhys opts for vengeful. Cosway's real revenge, however, is that of the supporting character over the declared heroine and hero - a point made all the more obvious in John Duigan's 1993 film adaptation, where Karina Lombard, as the disturbed Creole heiress, acts hectic rings around Nathaniel Parker's self-regarding Rochester.

Rhys reads Rochester's mind too, but she isn't merely pulling a Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece recounts a supposed rape from four conflicting angles, providing an object lesson in the unknowableness of "truth"). Primarily, she's reclaiming Antionette Cosway because Bronte, in a sense, gave her away. There's little empathy for the poor, tortured woman in Jane Eyre, where she's the deus ex machina. Bronte practically invites the sympathetic to invent Antionette's past. Rhys succeeds brilliantly. You return to Jane Eyre with peeled eyes and, filling in what now seem like gaps, observe, rather coldly, not tragedy but betrayal, self-pity and expediency. Rhys allows you a new way of looking.

What Rhys does - what this sub-genre explicitly or implicitly continually aims to do - is to push beyond consumer and collaborator into the role of critic. Wide Sargasso Sea not only analyses and extends our understanding of Jane Eyre, it also critiques itself and, slyly, the entire creative process. We compare and contrast Rhys's choices and strategies with Bronte's, and there's an instructive pleasure to be had from pegging the differences. There always is, even when the device is pure gimmick. As, in, say, the film He Said/ She Said (Kevin Bacon's and Elizabeth Perkins's variant takes on their relationship, his comedic, hers romantic) and the Burton/ Taylor television vehicle Divorce His/ Divorce Hers, or even in such "answer" records as I Am Billie Jean: that pregnant girl's rejection of the slurs cast upon her by a certain M Jackson.

This is never more obvious than with Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. (And, of course, Lou Grant: who would have thought that Mary Tyler Moore's mentor's view of their shared journalistic universe would be so much more serious and sombre, so much more nuts and bolts, than her flighty sitcom approach?) Like Mary and Antionette, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor figures granted major proportions: underdogs on top, sort of. Removed from Hamlet, Stoppard asks how they might exist when off-stage. (Do they exist?) Popping in and out of Shakespeare's narrative, they have time on their hands. Time spent commenting on the Bard's modes of reference - fate and character, blood, thunder and rhetoric - questioning the Prince of Denmark's motivation (madness? unrequited passion? incestuous desire?) and casually dismantling their own circumstances while being helpless to do anything about them (the bluebloods can't even tell which of them is which).

What is epic tragedy to Royalty is absurd comedy to them, for Stoppard has wrenched them from their moorings and implanted a contemporary consciousness: fate bows to bad luck, character to identity crisis - Guildenstern to Rosencrantz: "Who do you think you are?" - and order to chaos, or, at least, to chance. Hence the symbolism of playing head and tails. For Stoppard, the text is neither truth nor lie, sacred nor profane, but machine. He's interested in how the thing works: one's boredom is blithely accepted, and, in the end, rejected. Stoppard forces us to use our knowledge and exhaustion against ourselves: the sound of our own laughter is what wakes us up. In essence, he turns a bad joke into a good one, which, in these post-modern times, may be the only intelligent option.

Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tvReview: Too often The Casual Vacancy resembled a jumble of deleted scenes from Hot Fuzz
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David performs in his play ‘Fish in the Dark'
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Jemima West in Channel 4's Indian Summers (Joss Barratt/Channel 4)
tvReview: More questions and plot twists keep viewers guessing
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003