There are a few film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s eternally popular gothic novella. Walerian Borowczyk‘s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne repurposes the story as a sexually-charged Agatha Christie-like stately home mystery, and Roy Ward Baker‘s Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde has the mad scientist turn into a femme fatale at a sip of his serum. Hope Dickson Leach‘s new retelling is just as radical in its own way. Expanding on existing material filmed during her theatrical production, Leach shifts the story from London to Victorian Edinburgh and has the Jekyll and Hyde story as almost tangential to a narrative that foregrounds the gradual corruption of ambitious young lawyer Gabriel Utterson (Lorn MacDonald). The shift in focus works, even if the resulting film is inevitably stagey and melodramatic given its origins.

Utterson calls upon old friend Dr Henry Jekyll (Henry Pettigrew) after receiving a letter requesting that one Edward Hyde be added as a beneficiary in his will. It’s rumoured that this Mr Hyde is responsible for the deaths of at least one young girl and has the poor labourers living in the Vaults on Cowgate terrified. Utterson’s investigation into Hyde coincides with his being introduced by Jekyll to the cream of Edinburgh society, particularly the repugnant and boorish brewing magnate Sir Danvers Carew (played with relish by David Hayman). Utterson finds himself being seduced by the new trappings of power, and his new status vies with his desire to free his friend from Hyde’s malignant clutches in a battle for his soul.

Leach’s new version certainly looks the part. Drawing on German expressionism and 40s noir as stylistic touchstones, Edinburgh as shown here is as stark in its chalk and cheese depictions of the capital’s luxurious drawing rooms and dangerous, mist-sodden streets, as it is in its gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography. Black and white was the sensible choice here, and the look of the film, leaning into its theatricality, is arguably its highlight.

That performances are certainly indicative of theatre performance, but again this suits the style and the chewy, performatively decorous dialogue. MacDonald, a phenomenal talent, manages to gradually draw a shade over the initially earnest, eager-to-please Utterson. This is shown by the change in demeanour and body language when dealing with the ‘lower orders’. The themes of class are much more on the surface than in Stevenson’s novella, and Utterson becomes symbolic of the corrosive power of capital far more than the relatively one-note Carew. Pettigrew also does well as both Jekyll and Hyde, all avuncular courtesy as Jekyll, but the mask is never far from falling and the dark glimmer of Hyde is always lurking underneath.

Leach also draws lingers on a homoerotic subtext. It’s heavily implied the relative estrangement between Jekyll and Utterson at the beginning of the film is down to the pair having formerly been lovers. Therefore Utterson calls on Jekyll regarding the letter adding Hyde to the will out of jealousy. Also, the pair have had matching canes made at some point in the past, with Jekyll’s used by Hyde as a weapon during one murder. It’s an interesting addition that is perhaps narratively unnecessary, but does add an extra spark to Utterson’s motivations.

Yet overall, the stylistic touches are ultimately more satisfying than the direction taken narratively. While focussing on Utterson’s transformation is bold, it loses the original Promethean edge of the original. It is still a worthy and ambitious adaptation, and the Edinburgh location works superbly, but it feels like something of the tale’s spirit has been misplaced.

Screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023