Perhaps it’s the involvement of Ben Kingsley, or the fact that it’s set in a mental asylum, but Stonehearst Asylum bought back memories of Shutter Island, which if you’ll recall was a great film. Stonehearst Asylum isn’t of the same quality, but it’s still quite an enjoyable movie, assuming you don’t look for anything deeper within its walls. If you sit back and enjoy its Gothic aesthetic, creepy atmosphere, and fun cast of characters, you’ll have a good time.
Our lead is Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), a graduate from Oxford who specializes in treatment of the clinically insane. He’s decided to go to Stonehearst Asylum to gain practical experience. He’s greeted less than warmly by the superintendent, Finn (David Thewlis), but after inside he meets the head doctor, Silas Lamb (Kingsley), and things get off to a better start. Silas has unconventional methods to treating his patients — basically because he doesn’t do a whole lot of treatment at all. He lets them free roam, plays into their delusions, and even lets them dine with the staff. He believes that making them happy is better than making them miserable, even if the latter has a better chance of treating them.
Newgate finds himself transfixed on a certain patient, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), whom we’d already seen in our film’s first scene, during which she was shown by a professor (Brendan Gleeson) as having symptoms that are triggered by physical contact. She bit her husband’s ear off, after all. Newgate seems convinced that she’s relatively normal, and even goes so far as to make advances toward her.
Anything more would be telling. There’s an early twist which I’ll go ahead and say falls into spoiler territory, even though it does change the entire film from that point on. Let’s just say that the asylum’s hierarchy isn’t exactly as I’ve described, and there’s a certain saying about role reversals in asylums that very well might apply. By the way, even if you think I’ve given it all away, it doesn’t matter; the film isn’t about the twist, and knowing it is only part of the fun.
What it is about is its wonderful atmosphere, beautiful aesthetic, constant tension, and … a quest that I can’t say any more about. Oh, and it might, possibly, make you think about the way that we treat — or treated, given that the film is set right around the year 1900 — the mentally ill. But, mostly, it’s about wandering around this asylum, feeling a little scared while doing so, and just enjoying your time with the people and the setting.
You may not be surprised to learn that a movie like this one is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It’s not identical in plot or anything, but if you’ve read and enjoyed the story, you’ll want to check out the film to see how the adaptation plays to you. And, if you see the movie, I’d say there’s a good chance you’ll want to go back and read the source material (again). I know that it gave me that sort of desire.
Stonehearst Asylum has a very compelling group of actors to watch, some of them playing insane people — to varying degrees, of course. It’s too bad none of them have to ever show any emotional depth. The characters are too underwritten to have things like feelings; they act in service of the plot, or in proving a point, not because they’re people with feeling and emotions. Still, Jim Sturgess is a reliably charming lead, Ben Kingsley can play any role of sophistication, and Kate Beckinsale … is beautiful and therefore works as an object of the protagonist’s desire.
Stonehearst Asylum doesn’t have a lot going on beneath its skin, but it’ll be able to get under yours thanks to its wonderful cast, Gothic aesthetic, and occasionally creepy atmosphere. Will it terrify you? Probably not, but it has a few moments of horror and it generates a constant stream of suspense. It has a couple of surprising revelations, good performances, and, hey — at least it isn’t another movie about a serial killer murdering teenagers. Or is it? (No, it’s not.)