The BBC's "Jekyll'

The mother of all midlife crises

Nesbitt: A bit of Jack Nicholson.
Nesbitt: A bit of Jack Nicholson.

In "Sherlock," the popular BBC series whose second season just finished on public TV, Steven Moffat engagingly re-imagined touchstone Victorian literary characters in a contemporary setting. It's a repeat of a similar feat Moffat pulled off— for my money, more intriguingly— with "Jekyll," the 2007 series based on Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella.

Stevenson's story was first published during the waning days of the pre-Freudian era. That chronological distance creates a safe emotional distance for us now. In the 21st Century, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a period piece, as Moffat points out in a featurette included on the DVD for "Jekyll."

"It's always become a sort of metaphor for repressed Victorian sexuality," he says, "and while I think that's a perfectly good thing to do with the story, it's not as relevant, as poignant, as applying the metaphor to modern people, to modern man.... Make it modern and it's unsettling again."

Charming killer

And "Jekyll" is unsettling indeed. Tom Jackman (played by James Nesbitt) is the protagonist, the character who most engages our sympathies (as is usual— what would a version told from Hyde's point of view look like?), but we get to know Hyde as well, and he turns out to be a character with complexities of his own. He's a killer, but he's also a charmer.

Moffat is a witty writer who sprinkles in a fair amount of humor, much of it dark, and he gives some of the best lines to Hyde. "Trust me, I'm a psychopath!," he leers at one point.

The central issue in the Jekyll-Hyde story is, of course, the relationship between the two beings. Like Stevenson, Moffat explores both the moral or existential relationship between them (are they two selves, or two sides of one self?) and the physical relationship (how do they negotiate the logistics of sharing, or at least taking turns with, a single corporeal body?).

Shadowy past

The first episode opens with Tom strapping himself into restraints as he talks to Katherine (Michelle Ryan), a young psychiatric nurse. Despite the deal he's struck with Hyde, Tom hopes to find both an explanation and a cure for his transformations, and he's hired Katherine to help him do so.

Thus right from the start we're thrown into the middle of the story and forced to sort out Tom's relationships at the same time Tom does. These include not only Tom's relationship with Hyde, but the relationship of each with Katherine, not to mention with Tom's wife Claire (Gina Bellman) and his two sons.

At the same time, there's a narrative arc about Tom's origins— a mystery even before Hyde emerges— and the shadowy organization that monitors both Tom's and Hyde's activities.

A bit of Jack Nicholson

The success of any Jekyll and Hyde obviously depends heavily on the abilities of the actor playing the title roles. Nesbitt is restrained and subtle as Tom, and he goes for broke as Hyde. Just when you think it's too much— there's a whole lot of Jack Nicholson in the characterization, and a soupçon of Christopher Walken as well— he pulls it back. With the aid of makeup effects, Nesbitt succeeds in rendering each persona distinct but also in communicating the connection between the two.

"Jekyll" is not without its problems. The revelation of who Tom and Hyde are and what's going on, as revealed in the final episode, while reasonably coherent, won't hold up under microscopic analysis. Still, "Jekyll" is a first-class piece of story telling as well as an entertaining explication of what its director, Douglas MacKinnon, calls "the worst midlife crisis imaginable."

If you, like me, are waiting impatiently for the next three episodes of "Sherlock," Moffat's "Jekyll" should keep you happy in the meantime.