Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Brad Anderson
Stars: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, David Thewlis, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Edmund Kingsley, Guillaume Delaunay.
The inmates have taken over the asylum in this dark and disturbing thriller based on The System Of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, a short story written by Edgar Allen Poe, a past master of the macabre, in 1844. The story was previously told in the little seen 2005 film Lunacy from Czech director Jan Svankmajer.
Despite a strong cast that includes two Oscar winners and some solid production design though, the local distributors have thrown the film away, releasing it to cinemas on a limited basis and without previewing it to media. That strategy is not always a good sign, but Stonehearst Asylum is not a bad film per se but it is a little uneven tonally. Audiences seem to have appreciated other dramas set inside mental institutions, films like the classic Oscar winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Peter Hall’s overtly theatrical Marat/Sade, Quills, and even Martin Scorsese’s recent twisted thriller Shutter Island, and the recent HBO series American Horror Story: Asylum.
The film is set in London in 1899, at the turn of the century, a time when psychiatric medicine and the study and treatment of mental illnesses like hysteria was still in its infancy – electroshock therapy and physical punishment were still some of the preferred methods. When the film opens, a respected “alienist” (played by Brendan Gleeson) is giving a lecture and a demonstration to a group of medical students at Oxford University, using a couple of the inmates from an asylum as guinea pigs.
Shortly afterwards, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess, from Across The Universe, 21, etc), a newly graduated doctor from Oxford, arrives at the forbidding gates of the isolated Stonehearst Asylum, seeking to gain a residency and learn from its respected staff. He is greeted by Dr Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who seems to have some rather unorthodox and novel ways of dealing with his patients. Rather than trying to find cures that may cause further harm to their fragile mental state, Lamb gives them free rein to wander the sprawling corridors of the asylum. He informs Newgate that such social interaction and freedom is sometimes beneficial in their treatment. His methods seem humane and compassionate.
Newgate becomes obsessed with the patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale, from the Underworld franchise, etc), whom he first sees playing a piano while inmates listen raptly. He learns that she was committed to Stonehearst by her cruel husband after she took out one of his eyes and bit off an ear.
But soon, Newgate learns that all is not well within Stonehearst. Rather than a doctor, Lamb is in fact an inmate of the asylum who has orchestrated a coup. The staff and rightful superintendent Dr Salt (Michael Caine) are locked up in the basement dungeons where they are being starved. Newgate plans to try and release the prisoners and retake control of the asylum, although that proves almost impossible when he is constantly being watched by the wonderfully named Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), the suspicious and sinister groundskeeper.
As the new century approaches, time is running out for Newgate to save the prisoners. And Newgate is also unsure of Eliza’s loyalties as she seems to be under the control of Lamb. The film contains a late twist that even the most astute filmgoers will not see coming.
Kingsley revels in his role as the unhinged Lamb, a former military commander convicted of war time atrocities and committed to the asylum. He delivers a wonderful performance that moves from seductive and seemingly compassionate and enlightened to imperious and downright bonkers. Thewlis is quite creepy and menacing as the leering, lecherous Finn. Unfortunately the rest of the ensemble cast don’t fare quite as well, while the likes of Caine and Gleeson especially are underserved in underwritten roles.
Stonehearst Asylum (once known as Eliza Graves) has been written by Joe Gangemi, who turns Poe’s dark tale into something of a melodramatic potboiler, but he does suffuse the material with a touch of suspense in its latter stages. Director Brad Anderson gave us the dark and disturbing psychological drama The Machinist, which also boasted arguably a career best performance from Christian Bale, but has recently spent more time directing television shows like Fringe, etc. Stonehearst Asylum also has a few similarities to his own 2001 film Session 9, although it falls far short of that film’s oppressive atmosphere and genuine sense of shock.
The film looks good on the surface, though, thanks to the handsome lensing by cinematographer Tom Yatsko, who has given television series like Bates Motel and Gotham, etc, their distinctive visual style. There is also some superb production design from Alain Bainee, who has created a suitably grim and forbidding Gothic look for the dimly lit hallways and gloomy interiors of Stonehearst. Visually some elements of this Victorian era asylum resemble that seen in Shutter Island, which ironically also featured Kinglsey as the superintendent of the facility.