A lot of times, when movies have a really excellent cast but don’t seem to be getting a very wide release, they’re either tiny awards-bait movies or just not very good. I had pegged the new period thriller Stonehearst Asylum by director Brad Anderson (of Session 9, The Machinist and a whole lot of TV fame) as the latter, given that it’s coming out in October and looked pretty patently like a silly pseudo-scary flick. But, surprisingly, it was a lot better than that. It does boast a stellar cast and some pretty costumes, but to my surprise, it has a script that’s actually coherent and complex, and only delves into the silly twist-ending stuff a little bit. Who’d have thought that from this trailer?
Very loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story and written by Joseph Gangemi (whose only previous feature writing credit was the disastrous graphic novel adaptation Wind Chill), Stonehearst Asylum is a very deft character piece and morality play masquerading as a macabre thriller. Being set in the 1800s, the movie also has a lot of sly things to say about the barbaric ways asylum inmates were treated, and what exactly constituted that a person should be committed. There’s also, and I can’t stress this enough, a lot of dumb crap toward the end for plot convenience and WTF purposes. Enough to ruin the movie? Not necessarily.
We begin the film with Brendan Gleeson playing a small but pivotal role as a doctor teaching a group of psychiatry students about hysteria using the guinea pig of Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), who is said to be afraid of being touched but who is touched by the doctor, callously, to prove a point. Months later, apparently, a young doctor named Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) is making his way to the Stonehearst Asylum, perchance to get a job there. When he arrives, he’s met by the rather intimidating caretaker named Finn (David Thewlis) who takes Newgate to see the head physician, Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Lamb quizzes Newgate on why he’d want to be an asylum doctor and what methods he’d use. Lamb, it turns out, is keen on a new type of treatment, which is to let the patients walk around as they please and to indulge their fantasies. Newgate is immediately transfixed when he sees Ms. Graves, who is being treated with music therapy. Newgate doesn’t believe she belongs there, despite her hysteria, and, we find out, is only there because she doesn’t want to be touched by her brute of a husband.
Things seem to be going strangely, but not terribly, for Newgate until one evening he hears a noise coming through his room’s vent and walks down to the dungeon of a cellar to find a room full of people locked up in cages. One of them knows his name, from his letter of intent. It turns out, these people are the actual asylum staff and they’d been overthrown by Lamb, Finn, and the others who are the actual lunatics. The asylum’s actual head doctor, Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), tells Newgate that Lamb is that rare kind of criminally insane, one that believes he is completely above help. Newgate wants to attempt to help them, but will need to contact the authorities, and he believes if he can convince Eliza (who likes the young doc but knows she’s a member of the patients) to help and somehow reach Lamb, then everyone can be released safely.
This movie does a wonderful job of bringing us into the world of Victorian insanity (a lot of which isn’t even considered such today) and adding a lot of tension as Newgate attempts to play along with Lamb all the while aware that at any moment he could be found out. Lamb is also totally on the side of soothing treatment for the patients, which Salt never employed, instead using the tortuous methods of the era. It brings up a lot of interesting debates as to the ethics of these treatments, which are certainly monstrous by today’s more humane standards, but also questions whether the “insane” aren’t better off that way in a lot of cases.
The direction and performances are very good, which you’d expect from all of these great actors, but where the movie does tend to falter is toward the climax when it becomes GENERIC EXPLOSIVE THRILLER WITH A TWIST ENDING. Finn, who’d been sort of a sinister force through the whole film, becomes little more than a boogeyman with an Irish accent and while the resolution to Lamb’s story is rather nice, the revelation made about some of the other characters is very cliched and Hollywoody, though still not as out-of-nowhere as some twists. You can see this one coming, it doesn’t especially ruin the movie, it just makes your experience end with a “Oh,” instead of a “Oooh.”
Stonehearst Asylum is a surprisingly fresh and creepy look at a fairly well-worn premise with excellent acting and lovely visuals. The script is mostly enthralling however don’t expect to be blown away by the storytelling toward the end. Definitely worth a look, though, especially around this time of year.