There have been many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, gothic novella The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde for stage and screen since it was first published in 1886 - apparently some 123 screen versions have been made, as well as plays, musicals, one-man shows, comedy sketches and more.
This new, black-and-white film version is unique in that it’s a hybrid creature, a production that was initially performed by the National Theatre of Scotland on 27 February 2022 in multiple, purpose-built sets scattered throughout the labyrinthine Leith Theatre. A live audience watched the film in the same building, and it was streamed across the UK.
Following the live, hybrid event, additional scenes have been shot and the film re-edited. This latest version had its World Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival tonight.
The final result is a satisfying one, in spite of the inevitable staginess of the story. The production wears its theatricality on its sleeve, creating a moody, gothic melodrama that taps many of the techniques of classic suspense films from the black-and-white era (even its choice of font for the film’s titling is retro Thirties) as it revisits the timeless story on the duality of human nature.
Writer-director Hope Dickson Leach and co-writer Vlad Butucea transpose Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde from London to what many consider the story’s spiritual home of Victorian Edinburgh.
Shadowy staircases and stone streets, silhouettes, and swirling fog, mix with off-screen sound effects to create a foreboding atmosphere.
Edinburgh is depicted as a city of contrasts and extremes, where the veneer of respectability and success masks something darker below.
The central character Gabriel Utterston (Lorn Macdonald) is introduced as a respectable man of the law, as he begins a quest to save his good friend Dr Jekyll from the malevolent influence of a mysterious Mr Hyde.
The main story is the familiar one, but embellished here. The suggestion that the pragmatically minded Utterson will bend the law to his requirements soon takes root. This is not just a story about the downfall of his wealthy companion, Dr Jekyll, but it also charts how Utterston’s humane impulses are extinguished by the elixir of ambition and wealth. His inner battle is presented as a choice between helping or exploiting the downtrodden poor, precariously housed in the underground vaults of the Old Town.
Pettigrew's initially debonair Jekyll is a corroding influence on Utterston's character introducing him to the unscrupulous and powerful Edinburgh brewer Sir Danvers Carew (a memorably brutish performance by David Hayman).
The building of the National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill is re-purposed within the script as Carew’s magnificent, vanity project with Utterston expediting the hasty exhumation of corpses from the Calton graveyard to advance the project. While this plot addition fits the tone and theme of the story, I found it distracting, given the Monument just marked the centenary last year (July 1822), of the placing of the first foundation stone. That sense is felt more keenly, when in other scenes, Utterston is seen reaching for a candlestick telephone placing the action squarely at the other end of the century.
It might seem unfair to quibble about historical authenticity, particularly in a film featuring a character who has a habit of morphing into a creature with gnashing, wolf teeth. Certainly, the script writers allow themselves some latitude, punctuating the proceedings with irony drenched puns, no doubt intended, like Utterston's words to Jekyll “You’re not mad enough to hide him?” and another character's comment “I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him”.
The film is necessarily stylised. Some of the settings are fairly spartan and uncinematic - for example, in the scene in the New Town, gentlemen’s club, where Jekyll introduces Utterston to Carew, the atmosphere is captured simply with hubbub on the soundtrack with little visible background activity save a waiter exiting stage left. The leanness of the production is understandable given the restrictions of the project, and accounts for the film's overall retro, soundstage aesthetic.
However, the performances are first class, and in keeping with the tone and style of the film. Macdonald's Utterston comes across as a loyal friend, but also an opportunist, whose conscience provides no anchor for his ambition and whose ambition only sucks him deeper into the swamp.
Pettigrew is excellent as Dr Jekyll, a suitably enigmatic man of wealth and taste, whose smooth demeanour gradually unravels as his character loses control of the beast he has unleashed within. Pettigrew's manifestation of this taught, inner struggle is complemented by the artful and restrained, on-screen representation of the lupine Hyde.
A mention too for Alison Peebles, who puts in a nice cameo as Dr Jekyll’s surly housekeeper Ms. Poole.
There are many familiar locations acting as backdrops to the action - from a silhouette of Edinburgh Castle in the opening shot, to framing shots around the Old Town and New Town. Part of the enjoyment of watching the film is seeing a classic story unfold in a city you know intimately, even if some of the filmmakers' choices don't always sit well.
- 21 August 2023 at 18:00 Everyman 1
- 22 August 2023 at 14.30 Vue 10