Dr. Freud And Mr. Hyde

THE LAST TIME DIRECTOR STEPHEN Frears collaborated with John Malkovich, author Christopher Hampton, producer Norma Heyman, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and production designer Stuart Craig, the result was the marvelous "Dangerous Liaisons." This time it's another period piece, Mary Reilly, set in the dank and foggy streets of Edinburgh at the height of Victorian repression and sexual hyprocrisy. But lightning has not struck twice.

Based on the acclaimed Valerie Martin novel, it's the Jekyll and Hyde story told from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's faithful housemaid (Julia Roberts). Mary is a frightened survivor of an abusive, drunken father (Michael Gambon), and she thinks she's found a safe haven in the scientist's home. We know better, having seen this story before. Frears and company recast the tale as a Gothic love story in which the innocent, damaged girl is torn between her attraction to the intellectual, inhibited Jekyll and the savage, sexy Hyde (who sets off nightmares of her predatory father) -- both of whom love her, though neither can consummate his attraction. Overtly Freudian (not for nothing is Mary first seen bearing a squirming eel into the kitchen), the movie wants to explore the dark alleys of Victorian sexuality, with Jekyll as Superego and Hyde as Id, and Mary caught in the middle, confronting her primal horror.

This isn't dumb, but it plays out as academically as it sounds, without a shred of true terror and with only the most muted sexual charge. Solemn, portentous and curiously dull, there is simply no chemical charge between Roberts and Malkovich, both of whom seem thrown off stride by the material. It's an intriguing twist to present Hyde physically as the younger, cleanshaven alter ego (instead of the werewolf of London, he's more a bloodthirsty Victorian rocker), but Malkovich's toneless, self-satisfied whine of a voice has never been more distracting. It's impossible to feel any romantic urgency in the face of a performance so fussily self-regarding -- you'd think the real love story was between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (It's "Onan the Barbarian.") Roberts captures Mary's skittishness and panic -- better than she sustains her brogue -- and gamely deglamorizes herself. But she doesn't have the technique to plumb this character's psychosexual depths: she's too pallid to hold center stage. Another "Liaisons" vet, Glenn Close, contributes a lively cameo as the brothel-running Mrs. Farraday. Lewdly sinister, she's on the edge of camp, but under the lugubrious circumstances you appreciate the effort.