Last night, my wife and I watched “Stonehearst Asylum”, a 2015 film directed by Brad Anderson (“The Call”, “The Machinist”), based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe from 1845, “The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether”.
The film opens at Oxford University in 1899, where a professor, an alienist, (Brendan Gleeson – “The Guard”, “Calvary”) is showing a case of female hysteria to his students.
The patient, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale – “Underworld”, “Contraband”) insists that she is sane, but the professor tells his class that, just as all criminals claim to be innocent, all mental patients claim to be sane, and that they should “believe nothing you hear, and only half that you see.”
As New Year approaches, a young man arrives at Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum and introduces himself as Dr. Newgate (Jim Sturgess – “Kidnapping Freddy Heineken”, “Fifty Dead Men Walking”), a new doctor from Oxford who wishes to observe and gain clinical experience at the asylum.
Newgate is taken to the superintendent’s office, where he is introduced to Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley – “Robot Overlords”, “You Kill Me”). Lamb is not expecting Newgate, despite Newgate having written to the asylum in advance.
Nonetheless, Newgate is welcomed and taken on a tour of the asylum, where he sees Graves playing the piano and is quite transfixed by her.
Surprised by Lamb’s apparently relaxed treatment of the patients, Lamb explaining that he does not believe in locking up or drugging patients. He also encourages patients’ delusions as they are happier that way.
Newgate becomes increasingly unsettled by events during dinner, and is warned by Graves that he should flee immediately. However, already smitten with Graves, he will not leave without her. Returning to his room, Newgate hears a strange noise which, upon investigation, leads him below the boiler room where he finds a number of patients locked up in cells, including a man claiming to be the asylum’s true superintendent, Dr. Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine – “Harry Brown”, “The Italian Job”).
It gradually becomes clear that nothing, and no one, is what they seem to be…
Originally titled “Eliza Graves”, it seems as though this film has received generally poor reviews. We actually thought it was pretty good, and were most entertained. The acting was good, particularly from Kingsley, Sturgess, Beckinsale and Caine – although there was good supporting work from the likes of Gleeson and David Thewlis “The Zero Theorem”, “Harry Potter”) as the creepy Micky Finn.
There were some lighter comedic moments amongst the drama and suspense, the sets were convincing (I particularly enjoyed the approach to the asylum through the snow and fog) and the plot was certainly engaging.
The twist at the end was well done, too, most unexpected…
On a more serious note, we felt that it also gave pause for thought as to quite how you might define madness when considering some of the “treatments” that were once regularly used for some of those “illnesses”.