Stonehearst Asylum was a film that I was looking forward to seeing for two reasons – firstly, the fact that its source material was Edgar Allan Poe, one of the masters of gothic fiction and a long-time personal favourite. Secondly, it was from director Brad Anderson, who might have taken a cinematic misstep or two of late but remains the director of the excellent The Machinist and the phenomenal Session 9, which remains one of my favourite horror films to this day. Add in the fact that Session 9 has a common denominator with Stoneheart Asylum – namely, the asylum setting – and I was approaching this film with a great deal of optimism. Throw in a very decent cast – including Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine, and surely you have a winning formula. Right?
Hmm... well, not quite. The film is set in 1899, towards the turn of the century, and centres around Dr Edward Newgate. Newgate (Jim Sturgess) is an idealistic young doctor who arrives at Stonehearst Asylum in an effort to gain clinical experience to go along with his qualifications. He is surprised to be greeted by an unorthodox practitioner in the shape of Dr Lamb (Ben Kingsley) who eschews many traditional methods for treating madness in favour of a more forward-thinking approach. Gone are the bromides, water treatments and nausea treatments, replaced with the inmates blending with the staff and doctors far more freely in an attempt to 'normalise' them. On his first rounds, Newgate encounters the beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale – in fact the original title of the movie was Eliza Graves) and is immediately smitten with her. His pursuit of her love runs throughout the piece.
However, the 'twist' comes very early in the film, as Newgate stumbles upon a host of people locked in cells deep down into the asylum – not inmates at all, but the original staff of the asylum. This tension provides much of the narrative thrust of Stonehearst Asylum – Newgate needs to keep it secret that he knows anything about the situation, whilst also trying to figure out a way to free the original staff and restore 'normality' to the asylum. It's an interesting point the film makes in terms of the medical solutions on offer – there's a lot of patients who are far better off without their often barbaric treatments and the ministrations of the staff.
I think there are two main things that ultimately hold this film back – first of all, it's often pretty heavy-handed in how it deals with the subject matter, and at times for me was fairly insulting to the intelligence of the viewer. It's a failing that is all too common in 'Hollywood Horror', in that there's an unwillingness or a reticence to leave things to subtext for the viewer to pick up of their own accord. Secondly, the mood of the film feels pretty undecided – at some times it's richly gothic and darkly lush, whilst at other times it slips into absurdity, almost self-parody. A lighter touch throughout would have helped this film along no end, in my personal opinion.
With all that said, there are things to like here. The performances on the whole are very strong, as you would expect from this kind of esteemed cast. There are some really interesting visuals, and the film does capture really well the asylum setting of one-hundred or more years ago. But overall it just lacks a bit of subtlety and nuance – something Brad Anderson seemed to have a superb grasp of in Session 9 but has somehow gotten lost in the melee since – or dare I say the ascent into mainstream horror cinema.
Rating: 6.5/10. Despite arriving to this movie all optimism, it was hard not to get to the credits without the feeling of a missed opportunity. There's no disputing the quality of source material here, and Anderson is a director who can – on his day – deliver real cult classics. The end result is pretty overblown and all too often clumsily handled to really have a strongly believable feel. Add into that an underwhelming finale and it's hard to be too glowing – there's some things that work, and many that don't, so all told it's 6.5/10 for this one.
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