Synopsis: When young doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at Stonehearst Asylum in search of an apprenticeship, he is warmly welcomed by superintendent Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley) and a mesmerizing woman by the name of Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). Edward is intrigued by Lambs modern methods of treating the insane until a series of unusual events leads him to make a horrifying discovery, exposing Lambs utopia and pushing Edward to the limits of his conscience. Inspired by a short story from Edgar Allan Poe, Stonehearst Asylum is a tale in which nobody is who or what they appear to be.
eyelights: its cast. its plot. its setting. its set design. its atmosphere.
eyesores: its unlikely twist.
“Believe nothing that you hear. And only one-half of what you see.”
‘Stonehearst Asylum’ is a Brad Anderson (‘Session 9‘, ‘The Machinist’, ‘Vanishing on 7th Street‘) chiller based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”. It stars Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Kingsley and co-stars Michael Caine and David Thewlis.
Originally titled ‘Eliza Graves’, the picture is set in a mental institution on the eve of the 20th century. It follows Dr. Newgate into Stonehearst Asylum, where he hopes to get a residency. But he soon discovers that Dr. Lamb’s methods aren’t at all orthodox, though they’re arguably more humane.
And then there’s the matter of Eliza Graves.
Graves, like many of the facility’s residents, is of noble blood and has been put away for being an embarrassment to her family; though she seems normal, she suffers from so-called hysteria. She has a bewitching effect on Dr. Newgate so, though she warns him to escape while he still can, he stays.
And he soon discovers Stonehearst Asylum’s dark secrets.
Though it only shares a core conceit in common with the source material, which also inspired Jan Švankmajer’s ‘Šílení‘, I rather enjoyed ‘Stonehearst Asylum’. It’s a slow-burning film lightly wrapped up in mystery – which it sheds readily enough to reveal its brand of psychological horror.
It’s deeply anchored in its main cast, which is quite superb. I was especially fond of Sturgess as Newgate, reminding me very much of Michael Palin in his more serious work. Meanwhile, Kingsley’s eyes burned through the screen as Dr. Lamb and Caine brought intensity as Dr. Salt.
The pair have a terrific scene together, probably the best of the picture.
Even David Thewlis shone as Lamb’s henchman, Mickey Finn; though I’m not usually fond of him, he gave off a subtle aura of danger. Only Kate Beckinsale seemed a little out of place here, a little too bronze given the context and not really holding her own compared her illustrious colleagues.
But, then, in that company, few would. She was fine, just not stellar.
Stonehearst itself was probably the most compelling character of the film. The set design (or set dressing, if it’s an actual location) was memorable; a Victorian construction, the architecture is as grandiose as it is atmospheric. It’s the place of wonders and nightmares together at once.
And that’s what makes ‘Stoneheart Asylum’ so entertaining: Anderson knows how to dance between these two moods, sustaining both Eliza Graves’ power over Newgate’s affections and the skin-crawling terror that’s found in the belly the beast. Both are equally engaging and share the screen ably.
Otherwise, the plot isn’t especially remarkable, aside for the material culled from Poe: it’s a love story between two seemingly mismatched people, where love conquers all and rights are wronged. We’ve seen many of those before, so it’s only made compelling by its context and secrets.
The construction of the ending is weak, though: it’s not made clear how the staff escape (is it presumably Eliza’s doing?). There’s also the matter of Newgate’s trick up his sleeve, so to speak, which he seemed to find pretty randomly, by chance, and had far too damning an effect on Silas.
It all left me incredulous. But then, this seemed to be a common theme throughout the picture: I also wondered about the way that Newgate was drawn into the asylum’s basement, as though no one else would notice, and the outcome of his romance seemed unlikely, far too pretty to be true.
Let’s just say that the plot’s a bit loose, though the dialogues are strong.
Still, ‘Stonehearst Asylum’ was entertaining enough for my taste and the skill with which it was put together by the cast and crew overcomes the screenplay’s limitations. It’s not an especially stunning film, but it’s yet another feather in Brad Anderson’s unusually underappreciated cap.
I plan to revisit Stonehearst in the future.
Date of viewing: January 11, 2017