A recent medical school grad who takes a position at a mental institution soon finds himself taken with one of his colleagues — though he has no initial idea of a recent, horrifying staffing change.
The line between sanity and madness is a thin one. Only sixty years ago the treatment for mental ‘illnesses’ such as homosexuality and women’s hysteria was barbaric. In the last few years asylums have become quite trendy in the media, one example being the television show American Horror Story: Asylum. This series shows a solid exploration into what ‘insanity’ is and how the western world has often dealt with persons who are unlike the majority. The film Stonehearst Asylum, set in England at the turn of the 20th century, hopes to explore these same sort of issues but with less success.
Directed by Brad Anderson (who made the wicked Session 9) Stonehearst Asylum is a big budget period piece inspired by a Edgar Allen Poe short story. The film begins with patient Eliza (Kate Beckinsale) being paraded while dosed up on heroin (naughty dated prescriptions) at a doctors lecture at Oxford University 1899. With shows similar to AHS: Asylum we have become accustomed to being shown the ways in which mental patients were treated in the past, mostly with brutality and little to no sensibility. So this opening scene isn’t as shocking as maybe the director hoped but still it works at building the mystery of the film. It is also nice to see Beckinsale back on screen and she grabs the spotlight in the first few minutes.
From there we travel to the deserted asylum in which the film takes place. Like many old gothic tales the film’s first act begins with an opening shot of the creepy Stonehearst Asylum, a gigantic castle surrounded by forest and a over abundance of fog (not sure how the hell you would find your way around that place). Here we meet student doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) who is visiting Stonehearst Asylum to gain experience in asylum medicine. He meets the chief supervisor Silas Lamb (played by Ben Kingsley) who shows Newgate his own special unorthodox way of looking after his patients – treating them with compassion rather than the usual torture. One of these patients is the beautiful yet fragile Eliza Graves (Beckinsale) who Newgate takes a strong liking too.
As mentioned before Stonehearst Asylum plays around with exploring the idea of what makes a person mad however it often falls back into thriller territory. Stonehearst Asylum focuses more on plot twists rather than delving deep into the mind, repeatedly using the popular thriller trope that no one is who they say they are. This plot device can be a fun tool but the film uses it so many times that by the end you don’t really give two damns when the rug is pulled out from under your feet for the umpteenth time.
The film is chock a block with some of the finest actors working on screen today. Playing a wronged man in the asylum is Michael Caine who gives his usual striking performance. Yet Caine is underused in the film and even though there are many talented actors it just seems like Anderson couldn’t exactly figure out what to do with them. The romance between the two leads (Beckinsale and Sturgess) is the epicentre of the film which is supposedly driving a lot of the action. I feel like this is where the film trips up, I didn’t believe the romance I saw on screen therefore a lot of the narrative didn’t hit home for me and my investment in the film was close to 0%. At a run time of nearly two hours it felt like a slog at times to get through the film.
The set, costume and atmosphere of the film are spot on, all working together to represent the time era that the film is set. From the Hogwarts-esque castle to the asylum’s horrific contraptions it is obvious that a lot of detail has been put in to get the feeling of the film just right. This is often half the battle with a period piece and Stonehearst Asylum gets the look perfect.
The film is definitely more a drama-thriller than an outright horror so if you are looking for gore and kills this film ain’t for you. However if you are after a beautiful looking, by-the-numbers gothic-thriller Stonehearst Asylum might be just the treatment you are after.