Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
“No one is what they seem”
Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis
Synopsis: A couple of days before 1899 Christmas, the Oxford new graduate Dr. Edward Newgate arrives at the Stonehearst Asylum to complete training for his specialty of asylum medicine.
We all know the first day on a new job can be a bit nerve-wracking, but for Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess – Fifty Dead Men Walking, Kidnapping Freddy Heineken), arriving at the gates of Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum on Christmas Eve 1899 marks the beginning of a short but eventful tenure that involves twist after unlikely twist sprung with the dramatic gravitas deserving of a piece of literature far loftier than the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, Poe’s short story in which a new employee discovers that the lunatics really have taken over the asylum, provides the source material for Brad Anderson’s movie, although Joe Gangemi’s screenplay uses the big revelation in Poe’s story as a starting point for his own.
Shortly after his arrival, Newgate’s investigation of a persistent banging in the night leads him to the basement prison cell in which the real staff members of Stonehearst Asylum have been incarcerated. Dr Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine – Interstellar, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the asylum’s genuine head physician, informs the stunned Newgate that Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley – The Dictator, Ender’s Game), is an impostor, a patient who claimed Salt’s position after leading a revolt, and who filled the vacancies arising from locking all the staff in the cellar with the more sane of his fellow inmates. Knowing that Lamb and his associates are closely watching him for any indication that he has stumbled upon the true situation, Newgate correctly assumes that running to the nearest town for help is not an option, and, anyway, he’s taken a shine to Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale – Contraband, Total Recall), easily the prettiest and sanest of all of Stonehearst’s patients. He must therefore try to win Lamb’s trust if he’s to have any chance of rescuing the real staff before they starve to death.
It would be reasonable to expect that a film boasting the kind of cast to be found in Stonehearst Asylum would be better known than it is. In addition to the aforementioned Sturgess, Beckinsale, Kingsley and Caine, we have David Thewlis as Lamb’s volatile sidekick, Brendan Gleeson as a specialist in ailments of the mind, and Sinead Cusack as the asylum’s matron who finds herself locked up with her colleagues in spite of her caring nature. This is the kind of talent that suggests a prestige production, but, for some reason, Stonehearst Asylum slipped in an out of cinemas like a prisoner on the run. Quite why it slipped under the radar is something of a mystery because, while it’s not a great movie by any means, it’s better than many movies that benefit from a lavish promotion campaign and widespread distribution.
Although the film departs from Poe’s story fairly early on, it nevertheless remains faithful to the author’s Gothic style. The asylum provides an appropriately forbidding setting for a macabre tale like this one, and as it’s based in a remote 19th Century lunatic asylum it at least has a reason for people wandering around dangerous corridors and crypts in near-darkness, unlike modern-day movies in which characters seem to forget there’s a light switch on the wall behind them. The horrible irony of Newgate’s position is that the radical methods of the bogus doctor are more enlightened than those of the real one. But for some reason, the moral dilemma inherent in such a situation is quickly brushed aside for reasons that become apparent later. It’s a shame because the questions raised add an intriguing dimension to a story that ultimately descends into a straightforward ‘will they escape the loonies alive’ scenario.
The question of why Newgate chooses not to dwell on the moral implications of releasing the guardians of a primitive regime is answered by a late twist – one of many – that is so far-fetched as to almost erase all the positives that can be taken from the picture, and is symptomatic of how it skirts away from delving too deep into the various forms of madness with which the new keepers of the keys are inflicted. Anderson could have travelled a much darker path without straying too far from Poe’s vision, and we never really get a sense of the fragility of the inmates’ co-operative, or the unthinkable horror that would surely be unleashed if it was to collapse. Despite this lack of intensity, Stonehearst Asylum is entertaining enough, and any movie featuring the talents of both Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley is surely worth a couple of hours of anybody’s time.
(Reviewed 8th November 2015)