The movie begins with the blossoming friendship of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) and his servant, Mary (Julia Roberts). But when Dr. Jekyll announces that he has hired an assistant, the entire house is abuzz with confusion and speculation. Days go by, and the staff, Mary included try to fathom the mystery of Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s new assistant. A little more Goth and sinister twists are added, when Mary is asked by Dr. Jekyll to deliver a letter to Mrs. Farraday at the whorehouse. She is to let a room for Mr. Hyde.
Mary like the rest of the staff is curious as to Mr. Hyde’s habits. And one day she follows him into Dr. Jekyll’s lab, where she sees him handing over a cheque for blood money. However, in an attempt to escape so as to go unnoticed she hides in the lab, only to find the exit locked. When Hyde discovers her he merely smiles at her and hands her the key.
The following day, when a hurt Dr. Jekyll sends her to Mrs. Farraday with yet another letter, Mrs Farraday is furious. She shows Mary the room she had let to Mr. Hyde. It is covered with blood everywhere including the ceiling. She returns to Dr. Jekyll with a blood stained handkerchief of his from Mrs. Farraday and a message from the madam demanding that Dr. Jekyll do whatever is necessary to cover up the matter.
Mary finally meets the enigmatic yet mysterious Mr. Hyde and realizes she is drawn to his passionate side. Jekyll asks Mary to go on an errand with Hyde, where they get talking and get to know each other. Hyde taunts her by telling her that Jekyll finds her very attractive. Over time they get to know each other.
One day Mrs. Farraday comes over to meet Jekyll and demands more money from him in order to continue maintaining her secret. The argument between the two continues and Mary who has overheard the conversation steers clear of it by heading to the garden to water the flowers. However, she notices the light in the lab go out. And when she goes to investigate, all she sees is a pool of blood on the lab table. However, she does not see Hyde who is hiding after having committed the murder of Mrs Farraday.
A little while later Mary receives news that her mother has passed away. And she heads out to make arrangements. However, she is grabbed by Hyde who was hiding in an alley after being chased by the police. When she returns to the house, she is questioned by the police in the matter of the death of Member of Parliament, Sir Carew, who incidentally also happened to be a school friend of Dr. Jekyll. She tells them nothing. But the police are suspicious especially with so many deaths surrounding Dr. Jekyll.
However, later Dr. Jekyll tells Mary she should not have covered for Hyde and that he is removing Hyde from his employment. But Mary is stunned to find Hyde the next morning in Jekyll’s bed, especially since he had been dismissed. She tries to raise an alarm, but is stopped by Hyde who then reveals that Jekyll and he is one and the same person. And that Jekyll turned into Hyde every time he would take a serum for his depression. In order to return to Dr. Jekyll, Hyde would inject himself with the antidote.
Hyde makes his advances on Mary wishing to make love to her. However, a very shocked and stunned Mary then demands to leave. She returns to the kitchen contemplating what to do next when Dr. Jekyll enters and demands that another assistant take a sample of the serum to the lab to have it analyzed and also to have certain changes made in it successfully. However, the assistant returns with no success on the matter. In the meantime, Mary decides to leave the establishment. She packs her things and on her way out decides to stop by the lab.
However, when she enters, she is attacked by Hyde. But he doesn’t kill her. Instead he injects himself with the antidote. She witnesses how Hyde transforms back into Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll tells her that Hyde had added a poison to the antidote, and dies in her arms. The last shot of the movie focuses on Jekyll the next morning, who though was dead, has transformed into Hyde and is awake and smiling.
The movie has a dark, gloomy feel to it. It draws it viewers to the gothic, frightening world which was captured in the writings of Valerie Martin. While it is loyal to the original, it is in many ways better than Robert Louis Stevenson’s version, mainly because it does not focus of Dr. Jekyll turning into some sort of “Wolfman”. Neither does it focus of theatrics. What it does successfully achieve is the belief of something evil, and one woman’s psychology of finding both good and evil in one man.
All the performances are restrained. Julia Roberts doesn’t have many dialogues but successfully portrays a woman who is naïve and innocent yet comes from a tormented past. John Malkovich portrays Hyde and Jekyll with not much difference excepting the presence and lack of facial hair as Jekyll and Hyde respectively. The sets are vast, magnificent yet overbearing all at once. But overall, Frears has successfully accomplished what he had set out to achieve, and that is trying to create a film which is visually appealing and free from stereotypical clichés of present day horror movies.