Whilst I have always found Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to be one of the most psychologically fascinating of horror stories, the Hollywood film versions, with their emphasis upon cheesy transformation scenes and Hollywood Victoriana, always seemed to detract from the power of the original story. One of the elements that makes Stevenson’s story so creepy is that his characters repeatedly comment on the fact that there was nothing outwardly and obviously wrong with Hyde, nothing they could put their finger on, just a sense of Hyde being… wrong. In other words, to all outward appearances, Hyde passes as one of us.
The question of what distinguishes the men from the monsters is the preoccupying theme of Jekyll, the newest film version of the Jekyll/Hyde story. While it still portrays the conflict that made Stevenson’s story so powerful — the dualities of being a human animal, caught in the struggle between the civilized self and the animal instincts — this version is also one of the smartest, funniest, romantic, and yes, at times, creepiest, versions of this story I have ever viewed.
Produced as a six hour mini-series that aired on the BBC earlier this year and recently released on DVD, this version is not so much a remake as a retelling of the Jekyll/Hyde story. The story is relocated from Victorian Edinburgh to contemporary London and follows one of Jekyll’s descendents, a research scientist named Tom Jackman (James Nesbitt). There are other new characters, including Jackman’s wife, Claire (Gina Bellman), and Jackman’s twin sons, Harry and Eddie (a reference to Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde from the original Stevenson novel).
The cast also includes Jackman’s lab assistant, Katherine Reimer (Michelle Ryan), and Paterson Joseph as Benjamin, a dark ops leader with a cheesy Texan accent that reminded me strongly of a certain leader of the free world (some may recognize Joseph as having played the Marquis De Carabas in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere).
The real strength of the series, however, is the brilliant script, written by Stephen Moffat. Moffat is probably best known in the States for having written some of the most memorable episodes of the new Dr. Who, including “The Empty Child,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and this season’s very creepy “Blink.”
Moffat brings his combination of science fiction, horror, and comedy to create a script which focuses both on Jackman’s perception of himself and how this affects his relationship with his wife, Claire. If you are a fan of Moffat’s writing you will probably enjoy this series although, from some of the negative reviews I have read online, Moffat’s playfulness with narrative structures seems to be confusing to some American audiences. In addition, this being a BBC series, most of the violence and gore is implied, rather than explicit and, while there are many special effects, they are subtle, so this series will probably disappoint the horror fan looking for more extreme horror.
The DVD is a two-disc set which includes a number of extras, including interviews with the directors and actors, along with many wonderful comments from Moffat himself. There is also an extra which focuses on one of the most exceptional scenes of the series, a scene set in a zoo that is very evocative of Val Lewton’s 1942 classic Cat People.
While I found this re-telling of a traditional story exciting and exceptionally well done, I would suggest that this series is not for everyone. Viewers looking for a remake of the original story will not find it here; those viewers who prefer American Hollywood effects may also be disappointed. In addition, parents with young children should be aware that this series contains some violence, some use of four letter words, sexual content, and a couple of incidents where children are intentionally endangered by bad guys.