Robert Louis Steven­son’s Jekyll and Hyde have been given a mas­terly mod­ern makeover, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

ISEND you here­with a gothic gnome, in­ter­est­ing I think, and he came out of a deep mine, where he guards the foun­tain of tears,’’ Robert Louis Steven­son wrote to a friend, of­fer­ing his novella The Mys­te­ri­ous Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde .

His tale of a physi­cian with a se­vere case of split- per­son­al­ity dis­or­der shocked and tit­il­lated Vic­to­rian Bri­tain, just as Thomas Har­ris’s Si­lence of the Lambs cre­ated a con­tem­po­rary fas­ci­na­tion with the psy­cho­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of the crim­i­nal mind ( and un­for­tu­nately brought the se­rial killer to television: a mora­to­rium, please).

There’s a Hyde in all of us, Steven­son said, ver­sions of our­selves best kept hid­den.

We all surely know some­thing of the per­pet­ual skir­mish be­tween civilised mod­er­a­tion and the reck­less­ness that some­times gets us into trou­ble, that glass of wine too many, the harm­less flir­ta­tion that leads to the Fam­ily Court.

Shrug­ging off the con­straints of so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity once again, the tor­tured doc­tor and his mon­strous al­ter ego re­turn in Jekyll, a BBC Doc­tor Who- style makeover. Writ­ten by Steven Mof­fat, the Bri­tish hot shot with a string of hit sit­coms and dra­mas un­der his belt, this six- part se­rial spins the clas­sic Ed­in­burgh crime tale into the 21st cen­tury with daz­zling pace, ac­ro­batic plot con­vul­sions, and a bipo­lar in­ner beast with a thing for li­ons.

In this up­dated reimag­in­ing, Dr Jekyll, now known as Dr Jack­man ( James Nes­bitt) is mar­ried and Mr Hyde ( Nes­bitt) is to­tally un­aware of Jack­man’s mar­i­tal sta­tus. When his in­ner per­son tries to en­gulf his life, Jack­man des­per­ately at­tempts to keep his mar­riage and fam­ily safe from the clutches of the patho­log­i­cal Hyde.

The two halves

of Jack­man’s

per­son­al­ity main­tain an un­easy truce, keep­ing tabs on each other’s move­ments us­ing satel­lite track­ing and leav­ing mes­sages to ex­plain their where­abouts once their shift is over. The rogu­ishly un­ruly Hyde is rarely con­sid­er­ate, of course, tak­ing de­light in con­fus­ing the dourer Jack­man when­ever the good doc­tor re­turns. ‘‘ Just once, se­ri­ously, just bloody once, could you tell me where you parked?’’ Jack­man shrieks, stag­ger­ing on to an unfamiliar back street af­ter in­vol­un­tar­ily sur­ren­der­ing his cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem to its co- owner. Hyde gives Jack­man black­outs that end with him cov­ered in blood or zip­ping up his trousers in a derelict ten­e­ment watched by a trem­bling pros­ti­tute.

Mof­fat says the story stopped be­ing adapted ( there were many, most ve­hi­cles for show- off ac­tors such as John Bar­ry­more and An­thony Perkins) be­cause the orig­i­nal is based on the idea that you don’t know Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same per­son un­til the end. That plot line uni­ver­sally known now, he went for the mod­ern vari­a­tion, mak­ing the story more im­me­di­ate, chill­ing and con­tem­po­rary.

What this re­ally means is that he puts laughs along­side the dis­tress­ing mo­ments just so we don’t think he is tak­ing it too se­ri­ously. And there are plenty of crisp jokes, most to do with split per­son­al­i­ties along the lines of ‘‘ I have a nice side, but you just missed him’’ or ‘‘ I must go home and change.’’

Mof­fat, his back­ground in hu­mour, works off the com­mon­al­ity be­tween writ­ing com­edy and thriller- based hor­ror sto­ries. He knows it is all about punch­lines. Whether some­thing is funny, fright­en­ing or just a dra­matic sur­prise, the ac­com­plished Mof­fat loves set­ting up the au­di­ence for the old sucker punch.

And Jekyll is packed with them, the di­a­logue be­tween each elided and con­cen­trated to pre­pare us. In the first episode, Mof­fat clev­erly keeps the evil side off screen for the first half-

hour, as adept at cal­cu­lated mys­ti­fi­ca­tion as Stephen King.

There is no ram­page at the start to suck us in, no drib­bling, hairy wolf­man cut loose to howl at the moon. All we get is care­ful prepa­ra­tion as Mof­fat builds enough nar­ra­tive scaf­fold­ing to hold his won­der­fully pre­pos­ter­ous story to­gether.

What is the re­strain­ing chair used for in a base­ment that looks like an ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber? Who is the per­ilously at­trac­tive psy­chi­atric nurse ( lus­cious Michelle Ryan) and why can she be trusted? ( Mof­fat is ex­pert at re­veal­ing in­for­ma­tion while slyly de­tract­ing from it.) The steely set­ting of scene, stealth­ily dropped clues, tense ed­its, dread- loaded mu­sic and claus­tro­pho­bic cin­e­matog­ra­phy build won­der­ful ten­sion for Hyde’s even­tual re­lease.

This is high- con­cept con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish TV, darkly hip and highly pol­ished. Mof­fat cre­ates a new nar­ra­tive quite equal to Steven­son’s in its ex­plo­ration of an adult’s night­mare of dis­in­te­gra­tion.

Henry James ad­mired Steven­son’s ‘‘ gen­uine feel­ing for the per­pet­ual moral ques­tion, a fresh sense of the dif­fi­culty of be­ing good and the brutish­ness of be­ing bad’’. Mof­fat clearly does, too. He is mis­chie­vously witty, un­der­pin­ning his ver­sion with the sense that a lot of men ( and quite a few women, for that mat­ter) may like a bit more Hyde in their lives.

‘‘ I don’t have a se­cret lover or any­thing,’’ Jack­man tells his wife, try­ing to ex­plain the long ab­sences that are nec­es­sary for her safety. ‘‘ Dar­ling, you’re too re­pressed to have a se­cret lover,’’ she replies. There is more than a hint of know­ing sad­ness in her re­ply.

Other women suc­cumb to his al­ter ego’s charms, bed­ded be­fore find­ing out his first name. Men are not so lucky. ‘‘ Here comes God,’’ Hyde shouts at a young man in a lane, in im­i­ta­tion of Jack Ni­chol­son in The Shin­ing , be­fore he whacks him.

‘‘ I don’t get much joy out of killing chil­dren,’’ he sneers. ‘‘ But I get enough.’’

Head­ing a ter­rific cast, Nes­bitt ( Cold Feet , Mur­phy’s Law ) as usual turns in pow­er­ful per­for­mances, hard- faced and res­o­lute as Jack­man and scar­ily at­trac­tive as Hyde. The trans­for­ma­tions are built on the idea of an evil twin who is just a bit more hand­some and taller, with blood­shot, black, scary eyes.

James Ashcroft Noble, in his 1886 re­view of Steven­son’s book for The Academy , wrote: ‘‘ It is, in­deed, many years since English fiction has been en­riched by any work at once so weirdly imag­i­na­tive in con­cep­tion and so fault­lessly in­ge­nious in con­struc­tion as this lit­tle tale.’’

I’m sure Noble would be de­lighted to ac­knowl­edge Mof­fat’s mod­ern and mas­terly TV makeover with the same gen­er­ous ac­co­lade.

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