Starring Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Kate Beckinsale and David Thewlis
Directed by Brad Anderson
From Icon Productions
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Stonehearst Asylum reveals its wicked sense of humor early: A doctor is given a tour of an insane asylum, and during the tour he’s introduced to a patient who’s allowed to pretend he’s a horse. Why not cure him, the doctor asks. “What, and make a miserable man out of a happy horse.”
Here is a movie that does not excel, but it has heart and pluck and charisma. Oh, and making matters more interesting, Stonehearst is a gothic thriller set in chilly castle for the criminally insane. Yeah, it’s creepy charmer.
The doctor here is Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) and he’s come to Stonehearst in the English countryside to learn about curing mental patients, who are still at this point in modern medicine called “lunatics,” which is one better than what another character calls them — “inebriates and chronic masturbators.” Newgate is quickly taken under the wing of Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who runs the facility under some curious rules, including one that allows patients to come to staff dinners to socialize in their bare feet.
As Newgate learns about the facility and its many dark corners, he realizes the film’s first big joke: the lunatics are running the asylum. Now, I say joke, but this is no comedy, yet I couldn’t help but laugh as events unfolded to reveal one absurdity after another. Patients are injected with heroin, given drought-causing waterboarding exercises, thrown in this ridiculous dizzy-chair contraption, and allowed to determine their own treatment, even if that treatment is none at all. When one character is threatened with something called a “pelvic massage” I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. (I did.) the whole movie is like this — vaguely hilarious, if also menacing and shrouded in doom.
Newgate takes a special interest in Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful ear-biter and eye-gouger whose husband has put a price on her head if she’s discovered. Behind Newgate as he attempts to rescue Graves is Dr. Lamb, an even more mysterious Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and a groundskeeper named Mickey Finn (David Thewlis at his most vile). And if you caught those names — Newgate, Graves, Lamb, Salt — you’ll be forgiven for thinking this is an psychological allegory.
The movie is drawn from an Edgar Allen Poe story, though I suspect loosely. It does have Poe’s devilish sense for humor. In an early scene, we’re told the asylum is home to the finest lunatics in all of Europe. “Here look at this man,” Lamb says, “he comes from a wealthy family that owns a vast train empire.” But why is he in the asylum? “Because he suffers no interest in trains.” Yeah, that sounds like Poe or maybe even Alfred Hitchcock.
Stonehearst, directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist) from a script by Joe Gangemi, taps on all the predictable story beats, and some that aren’t so predictable. You know you’re in for a whopper of a finale when they trot the horses through the asylum kitchen. I will admit I expected a bigger twist at the end, something perhaps on par with Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead, it fizzles.
It’s all absurdly silly and at the same time deathly serious. That makes for a strange dynamic, for sure, but I was never bored, which is high praise for this genre.