Film Review and Comparison: Stonehearst Asylum

Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, Sir Ben Kingsley, Brenden Gleeson, David Thewlis, and Michael Caine. What do these huge names have in common? They all starred in Stonehearst Asylum released a year ago to mixed reviews and low box office. I had not heard of the film until I saw it pop up on my Netflix “New Releases” list, and since it was a slow night, I thought I would take a blind chance and watch it. How could so many names go wrong?

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see.”

Set in 1899, we open with an Oxford University class on mental illness. Eliza Graves (Beckinsale) is brought in to display a classic case of “female hysteria” in front of a room full of male students. She is humiliated and stimulated for objectification before being wheeled off in a conveyor belt of other patients.

We then transition to a young Dr. Edward Newgate (Sturgess) traveling through dense woods and fog to get to Stonehearst Asylum where his professor has sent him for his residency. He is awkwardly welcomed by Mickey Finn (Thewlis), the groundskeeper, and Dr. Silas Lamb (Kingsley), the head physician of the asylum. Edward is thrust into an environment where the patients, no matter how mad, can roam the building with abandon since Dr. Lamb observes a “dignified” way to treat his patients: by having them embrace their insanity rather than be cured by it.

Edward is wary of the approach. Patients fully believe they are teapots, horses, and everything and anything else, but it all goes out of his mind when he sees Eliza playing peacefully on the piano. She is in no way the same insane and worked-up woman we saw at the opening of the film. She is coiffed, dressed remarkably, and calm. Dr. Lamb asks Edward what he sees. It’s clear that Edward is enamored by her, but what he observes is her “insanity” is in check.

“Exactly,” says Dr. Lamb. He believes the music keeps her “hysterics” at bay. By letting the patients remedy themselves, they can overcome their illness. But as we see more and more patients get stranger and more complicated, we are left to wonder if the patients are actually being thrust toward their insanity, rather than being cured.

The first night in Stonehearst, Edward hears strange noises from the basement. As any thriller film will do, Edward goes to investigate and finds prison cells full of decrepit and sick people. Benjamin Salt (Caine) comes to the forefront and demands to be released. Believing these are prisoners or patients, Edward ignores the pleas until an unknowable fact about his arrival is revealed. These prisoners are not patients. They are the proper staff of Stonehearst Asylum.

Now on constant watch, Edward must decide between running off with Eliza and choosing to rescue the ill-treated staff who have been tortured at the insane hand of Dr. Lamb.

* * * * *

The film was adapted from a classic tale from Edgar Allan Poe: The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. In the story, a young doctor takes a detour to see Maison de Sante in the south of France. He is curious about the medical methods that have stemmed from the asylum and have been made famous in Paris. The method is called a “system of soothing.” All punishments to the patients are avoided, and while all patients are…

“…secretly watched, [they] were left much apparent liberty, and that most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds in the ordinary apparel of persons in the right mind.”

Dr. Maillard believed in letting the patients embrace their illness or state of mind.

“We contradicted no fancies which entered the brains of the mad. On the contrary, we not only indulged but encouraged them; and many of our most permanent cures have been thus effected….We have had men, for example, who fancied themselves chickens. The cure was, to insist upon the thing as a fact.”

It isn’t until that evening, over dinner, the young doctor is made aware of the peculiarities of the people around him. Dr. Maillard begins telling tales of the patients in the ward and, in pleasant conversation, the other guests at the table tell their own anecdotes of the patients.

“Madame Joyeuse was a more sensible person, as you know. …She found, upon mature deliberation, that, by some accident, she had been turned into a chicken-cock; but, as such, she behaved with propriety.”

“Madame Joyeuse, I will thank you to behave yourself.” here interrupted our hose, very angrily.

The young doctor is then made aware of what exactly has happened to the patients and staff of the asylum.

* * * * *

Aside from the basic premise and plot, there is not a lot of similarities between the two mediums. Obviously, much more is revealed and developed in the feature film with tales of the war and images of the new century beginnings, (Poe’s short story is only about 10 pages in length) but with that, I would have hoped the film would not have been so dull.

The film plays it safe. There is nothing that really pushes it into a horror, thriller, or drama category. But it is billed as a mystery, drama, and horror. If films could get made and sold based on “mystery” alone, that is the sole genre this film should be labeled. But with “horror” being the genre of choice for investors and viewers these days, I can see why marketing-wise, this film took on that assumption. But it is misleading and disappointing.

Much of the film is just one step away from being good. The images are just sanitized enough to be boring and the story is just slow enough to lose my attention. With stars like these lined up, I wonder what went wrong.

Brad Anderson is no stranger to adapting classic literature. I first encountered his work with The Machinist starring Christian Bale based on the work of Dostoyevky. I instantly became a fan. But in The Machinist, there was no holding back on visuals and twists and turns in the narrative. Stonehearst Asylum is just pulled-back enough to leave you wishing for less camp and more thrill.

SHORT STORY > FILM

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