The ZONE genre worldwide books movies
the science fiction
fantasy horror &
mystery website
 
 
home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email

Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1981)
Director: Alastair Reid

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Arguably one of the great works of 19th century literature, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde has been re-invented and re-imagined numerous times since the novella first appeared in 1886. Aside from the numerous works 'inspired by' or 'paying homage to' Stevenson's work, there have been at least 20 different screen adaptations stretching back to 1913. However, the version that I shall be concentrating on today is the 1981 BBC television adaptation starring veteran character actors David Hemmings (Blowup), Ian Bannen (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances) alongside 'was that?' supporting performances by Toyah Wilcox and Diana Dors.

The original novella was framed as a kind of detective story in which a lawyer is called upon to investigate the strange goings on in the life of his friend Dr Henry Jekyll. From the lawyer's point of view, Jekyll has become involved with a man of the name of Edward Hyde. Rarely emerging from his laboratory, Jekyll appears to have surrendered much of his life to this most un-gentlemanly of Victorian men who even goes so far as to murder a local MP. Once the lawyer and the police try to confront Jekyll about the situation they find letters detailing Jekyll's experimental attempts to isolate and separate the good and the evil parts of the human soul and how after unleashing Hyde upon the world, the doctor struggled more and more to assert his control over their shared body.

One reason why The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde has proved so lasting a tail is that Stevenson proved reticent to go into any real details as to what Hyde actually got up to in Jekyll's body (though there was, allegedly, an earlier more explicit draft that Stevenson decided to burn). This vagueness has allowed different generations and cultures to project upon the story their interpretations of the multi-facetted nature of man. For example, when the book was written, Hyde was meant to embody all the evil impulses and vengeful yearnings that Victorian society was so hell bent on controlling through a strict public code of morals. However, since then Hyde has changed from a grotesque monster to a madman and back into a monster in the shape of Alan Moore's depiction in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen of the character as the true face of humanity unleashed from behind the weak and ineffectual faç´┐Żade of the civilised Victorian Jekyll. Indeed, as talk of objective morality and souls has been eclipsed in the on-going debate of how humanity sees itself, Jekyll and Hyde have taken on a more psychological aspect. In fact, one popular Freudian interpretation of the story is that while Hyde represents the ever-demanding destructive powers of the Id, Jekyll represents the equally demanding repression of the Superego. Intriguingly, it is this interpretation that director Alastair Reid and writer Gerald Savory choose to depict, but they bring a lot more to the story than psychoanalysis.

Reid's Jekyll is a man of science and charity. An elderly Scottish doctor who tends the sick by day while trying to improve mankind's lot through science and political activism by night, he is every inch the Victorian gentleman, right down to his chaste friendship with Mrs Ann Cogersham (Lisa Harrow), the widow of a crusading MP. However, when he isn't trying to save the world, Jekyll is a deeply conflicted and twisted man. In love with Cogersham but too timid and worried about propriety to act upon his feelings, he ventures out at night in order to be beaten by hideous cackling prostitutes. When Jekyll takes his potion (composed of mescal and opiates dissolved in ether) he turns not into an unwashed and uncivilised member of the proletariat but a cocky and dapper upper class Englishman who immediately dresses for a night at the opera and struts off to pay a 14-year-old flower girl for sex ("You're just a common harlot, aren't you?" he coos into her face). Reid's Hyde is less a manifestation of Jekyll's true desires than he is a man empowered by rather than constrained by his every whim, desire and impulse. Jekyll is not so much trapped inside Hyde as addicted to becoming him (hence the explicitly narcotic character of the potion and the trippy Sapphire And Steel-style visuals surrounding the transformation). When a magistrate sees Hyde brutally beating a rent boy, Hyde turns on the magistrate, clubbing him to death before taking flight. Jekyll tries again and again to rid himself of Hyde by destroying his formula but a stressful night observing the poverty in inner London or a flash of self-righteousness while on his way to a meeting is enough to push him off the wagon and back into the intoxicating embrace of Hyde's libido.

Aside from the intriguing way in which Hyde is treated as a high that Jekyll cannot help himself from chasing, Reid and Savory's adaptation is also strangely free from morality. Jekyll has no problems with Hyde shagging under-age prostitutes or even with his getting the scullery maid tanked up on mescaline and booze in order to have his way with her. His problem with Hyde is the extent to which Hyde's lack of impulse control ultimately affects Hyde's life and endangers his position. This lack of morality is not only a clever comment upon a world where the concepts of good and evil were becoming increasingly grey but also an intelligent attempt at projecting a junkie's self-serving priorities onto an upstanding Victorian gentleman.

Clearly shot on tape and using rudimentary visual effects, this production nonetheless crackles with quality. Hemmings is powerful in his dual role (aided in no small way by excellent hair and makeup effects), Ian Bannen reprises the slightly off-centre loucheness of his Jim Prideau from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the dialogue and secondary performances are equally excellent. The only real disappointments are the decision to use synthesiser music rather than the real thing (giving this series a slightly Doctor Who-ish feel at times) and the film's slight sagging in the middle as a little too long is spent on the relationship between Jekyll and Mrs Cogersham which relies entirely upon the final denouement for its power anyway.

All things considered this is an excellent adaptation of a classic play marred only by the complete lack of any discernible extras on this DVD (released on 25 June 2007 by Second Sight), and an overly dark digital transfer which makes a number of early scenes difficult to follow. Warmly recommended to anyone who likes uncompromising intelligent drama.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Please support this
website - buy stuff
using these links:
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Send it DVDs
W.H. Smith
Movie Posters

home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email
copyright © 2001 - 2007 Pigasus Press