Student Model: Movie Review

Social Stratification and Class Consciousness in 19th Century England as depicted in Stephen Frears's Mary Reilly

by Bart Hart
English 302 Dr Moody
November 7, 2003

During the 19th century the British had a very rigid social stratification. At this time in their history the class structure didn't allow for much mobility between the ranks of the lower class, middle class, and upper class. What level of income and power you were bom into, you stayed in. Thus, if you were born into a lower class family, you would be a lower class citizen, doing menial blue-collar labor for the rest of your life and you would receive little to no education. If you were bom to an upper class family, you would receive the finest education, live a posh lifestyle, and never truly associate with anyone outside your social strata.

This social stratification in turn led to class-consciousness, which refers to a condition where people perceive themselves in terms of their class and act accordingly.

The attitudes of social stratification and class-consciousness of the time are reflected in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These attitudes are depicted by not so much of what is written, but by what is not written. The main characters of Stevenson's novel are all upper class citizens, not one lower class person has a major part. The only person of the lower class who is even mentioned on a consistent basis is Poole, Dr. Jekyll's manservant. Otherwise, any other common folk are not worth mentioning or worthy of attention. Poole himself is barely touched upon as a person. All the other characters in the book have lengthy descriptions about their persons. Dr. Lanyon, Mr. Uttterson, Dr. Jekyll, and even the notorious Mr. Hyde have sentence after sentence describing them, their habits, their attire, and especially their personalities. Poole is simply and plainly described as Dr. Jekyll's manservant.

The motion picture, Mary Reilly, directed by Stephen Frears, starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, does an extraordinary job of expressing some of the beliefs of this period n England's history. The movie uses camera angles, different types of shots, mis-en-scène, and acting to reflect the mores of Mary Reilly's society.

The opening scene bluntly depicts the stations in life of our two main characters. The camera does a slow approach shot toward Mary, who is on her hands and knees scrubbing the front stoop of Dr. Jekyll's home. As the camera zooms in on her hard work, we see Dr. Jekyll arise out of the fog to plant a muddy shoe right where Mary is scrubbing. He then proceeds to scrape off the mud on his shoes right on the recently cleaned porch. Dr. Jekyll's complete disregard for Mary's hard work shows us, like a slap in the face, that Mary is a servant and Dr. Jekyll is the elite of society.

The social stratification of these two is further exemplified by differing camera angles. In almost every scene that Dr. Jekyll and Mary are carrying on a conversation the camera angle, during close-ups, is always looking down at Mary and up at Dr. Jekyll. The downward angle of the camera implies that she is of low class and beneath Dr. Jekyll, whereas the upward angle of the camera to Dr. Jekyll implies that he is above Mary and an elite member of society.

In these scenes when both Mary and Dr. Jekyll are in the shot together the placement of the actors represents their stations in life. During these shots. Dr. Jekyll is always prominently in the foreground, larger than life, to show us how important he is. In turn Mary Reilly is insignificantly placed in the background much smaller and diminutive than Dr. Jekyll, demonstrating to us her place in life. Dr. Jekyll is in the foreground, deliberately larger to make us pay attention to him because he is much more important than his lowly servant, Mary Reilly.

The few instances that the camera angles did not look down on Mary were because she was saving or helping Dr. Jekyll. For example, when she was nursing him in the morning, she tried to get him to drink the broth because he felt deathly chill and during this scene the camera actually looked up at Mary. Here Mary, dressed in white, was like an angel-nun trying to save Dr. Jekyll. This angelic formula takes place several times throughout the film but is feature most prominently at the end. Mary Reilly basically saves Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's soul by bringing Hyde back to his senses where he then poisons himself and Dr. Jekyll. In the final scene after their death we see Mary ascend the stairway and disappear into the fog, like a creature from another world disappearing back into it in the form of an eerie calm mist.

Early on in the film mis-en-scène plays another crucial role in showing us who is upper class and well educated. When Mary enters the library to tell Dr. Jekyll he can examine her scars, we see a solitary man surrounded from floor to ceiling with gargantuan bookshelves packed with tomes of knowledge. Dr. Jekyll is flaunting the obvious, he is a well educated man and that his servants, most of whom can't read will never be as educated as him or reach his station in life. It is only when he spies Mary reading a book in his library that he actually takes a human interest in her, not a scientific one. This act of reading has elevated her above her compatriots and that stimulates his actions and feelings toward her.

Throughout the film mis-en-scène continues to show us Mary and Dr. Jekyll's stations in life. For example, Mary has to share a bed with another servant; in a sparsely furnished, cramped room that shares a remarkable resemblance to a closet under the stairs. Dr. Jekyll sleeps in a huge bed in a lavishly furnished room.

Julia Roberts' acting offers insight into her characters class- consciousness. Mary Reilly always walks around with her head down and always averts her eyes from any superiors when she speaks with them.

Due to the stringent attitude towards people's behavior, and how easy it was to fall out of respectablity as members of a class at the time that the novel was written, Dr. Jekyll can only yearn for more than his present life. He aches to throw off the shackles of the upper class and live life the way he wants. Dr. Jekyll in his own account Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reveals that he has led a dual lifestyle one of which he is a gentleman doing just and acting appropriately and the other where he is a scoundrel sating every one of his desires, dipping his hand into the well of life. He says, "many a man would have blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of, but from the high views that I set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame." Dr. Jekyll yearned for another life, a life where he was free to act as he wanted and free to follow his heart's desire, no matter how perverse society thinks it.

As a trained servant, someone who now can read, a female and person originally from the working class, Mary Reilly had a more subtle desire for a different life. She saved all her money hoping that someday it would be enough to retire on and live well. She wants to be respected as a lady. She longed for a romance with Dr. Jekyll, a man she knew was out of her reach. She ached for a different life too.

In both book and movie Mary and Dr. Jekyll felt very alone and trapped in their present states. This solitary state for Mary is shown in the movie through wide camera shots with Mary small and all alone in the picture. Dr. Jekyll's loneliness is more candidly shown in the scene where he is taking dinner in his dining all by himself with two menservants tending to his needs. In another scene Mary finds him in the vast library tucked way in the back all by himself. These shots are all very forthright depictions of Mary and Dr. Jekyll's solitude.

Their solitude and yearning for a different life leaves the two of them trapped in their present incarnations. The movie reveals this state of mind to us in simple ways. There are many shots of Mary and Dr. Jekyll either behind wrought iron bars, through pane glass window, or views of the characters through stairway railings. All of these bars that cross our view of the characters or those bars the characters have to view their world through are symbolic of the cage that holds them in their lives. No release, like animals trapped at the zoo longing for freedom.

In the book and the movie even Hyde is constrained by the social stratification. Nobody knows how to deal with him because they can't figure out what he is. He is allowed access to Dr. Jekyll's estate, house, laboratory, and money, but nobody knows why or where he came from, so they treat him with much trepidation. In the movie we were told by the Dr. Jekyll's chef that Poole said, "I don't know what he is, but that Hyde is no gentleman." We see here that even the servants don't believe they should treat Hyde with any respect and are confused.

Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does not remark upon social stratification or class consciousness in a written form, but it is what Robert Louis Stevenson left out or did not comment on that allows us to understand the thought processes of England's society back then. The motion picture, Mary Reilly, attacks the English belief in class system very bluntly by showing at every turn Mary's station in life and how one of the lower class has to deal with the problems that are wrought by the upper class of society.

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated: 13 November 2003.