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.