Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, David Thewlis, Michael Caine, Jason Flemyng, Sinéd Cusack, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Brendan Gleeson
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing and violent images, sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 10/24/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 23, 2014
When our protagonist first encounters the eponymous institution of Stonehearst Asylum, we cannot see it. It is nestled between a dense forest and a mountain range in some remote part of England, where the inhabitants of a local village know the doctors and the rare visitor from an escaped inmate based upon whether a person is heading toward the asylum or away from it. When the man arrives at the stone wall and iron gate that separate the place from the rest of the world, all we can see is a great fog. Somewhere in that mist is an old manor that now serves as the forced home of people with whom society wants no more part.
The whole experience of the arrival at this place is exactly the type of atmosphere we would expect from a movie based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, even if the source material ("The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether") isn't even a horror story (The play on words of the title of the short story should be a hint). The author's name elicits a certain expectation, and director Brad Anderson certainly meets it in these opening scenes.
There's the foreboding of the trip, which includes a couple of locals explaining their system for telling if a stranger is escapee or not (which suggests that such an occurrence happens enough for there to be a system for it). There's the odd manner of the asylum's groundskeeper upon meeting our hero and the fact that he is clutching both barrels of a shotgun while suggesting that our man might not belong there. There's the damned fog, which dissipates as soon as the groundskeeper unlocks the gate, revealing an estate that seems better suited to the aristocracy than the criminally insane.
Everything about this place is screaming out that something is amiss, and Anderson knows that it's more frightening if that screaming is muffled. He doesn't oversell it; he's peddling the atmosphere at just the right pitch and volume.
Then Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), a medical student from Oxford looking for hands-on experience, meets the inhabitants of this place. The head of the place is Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley, in what is an appreciably restrained performance, considering the details of his character), who has come up with a new method for treating his patients.
Specifically, he humors their delusions. A patient who believes he is a horse is treated like a horse. Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), who attacked and disfigured her husband after his abuse became too much, is treated like the proper lady she was, playing the piano for her fellow residents throughout the day and for the staff at evening parties. Edward is immediately smitten by the lovely Eliza and wants to rescue her from this horrible place (After the intriguing setup of her character, she really does just become a beautiful, passive object of affection).
After a strange party attended by the staff and the patients, Edward hears a clanging sound coming through a vent and travels down to the basement. There, he discovers a secret group of prisoners led Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), who tells Edward that he is really the head doctor. The inmates—you likely have guessed the imminent cliché—are running the asylum.
It explains all of what we've seen until this point, and it's really the only major revelation until one at the movie's climax, which throws all of our previously held assumptions out the window. That is all of them except the assumption that there might be more to the story of the asylum and its odd band of staff/patients. It's not that Joe Gangemi's screenplay doesn't try to keep us off balance throughout the course of the movie. There's a showdown on the side of the cliff between Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), the groundskeeper, and a pair of escaped patients/staff members that omits the culmination of the scene, seemingly to leave open questions about Salt's story.
It turns out to be a false hope. Aside from the crucial but completely arbitrary twist at the end, what we see and hear is exactly what we get, despite the ominous pronouncement of an Oxford doctor (Brendan Gleeson) during the movie's prologue: "Believe nothing you hear and only one half that you see."
There's not much mystery here, but the movie almost makes up for it with the smart use of its setting. There's the asylum itself, but Gangemi also takes into consideration the time period—the days leading up to New Year's Day, 1900. Silas recalls the atrociously "primitive" practices of his predecessor to "treat" the patients, only to devise and implement a primitive form of electroshock therapy.
The movie's concern with pre-modern psychiatric practices, though, is entirely about continuing its constricting atmosphere, and that's fine, considering the movie's reliance on creating that air of dread and mystery. What's missing is some meat on those bones. Stonehearst Asylum starts strongly but reaches a climax that includes a fistfight, a flashback, and a fire. Having just two of those things suggests that a movie has run out of ideas, so imagine what it suggests that this one has all three.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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