Stonehearst Asylum is based on an 1844 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, foreshadowing a psychological/gothic horror film in the heart of England with pessimism and dread. So why is it that this film adaptation, with an all-star cast including Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Jim Sturgess, never elevates its intriguing set-up past anything more than red herrings and confusion? Visually the film is a treat and filled with sepia and black-tinted shots, lavishly decorated and costumed. Edgar Allan Poe would be proud of its eye for the times. But it's confounding in how deliberately it avoids establishing its own voice, instead feeling too light-hearted and comedic at times while simultaneously mixing horror-thriller with a whodunit-type caper that gets introduced in the final moments of the film. The delivered surprises are inconsistent in their effectiveness, with the first delivering a solid punch while the one in the final scenes of the film feels woefully overdone and aimless. Director Brad Anderson's film is a convoluted mess.
The film focuses on a medical school graduate named Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) who takes up a position at Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum. He wants to study asylum medicine because he admires the idea of helping those that truly need it. The doctor on staff, Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), believes in a different type of care for the patients, keeping them from their supposedly "helpful" medicine and instead letting them run their own course. It's admittedly working, with music acting as a cure for hysterical housewife Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a woman that bit off her husband's ear. She used to be treated in improper, often exploitative ways, as evidenced by an opening scene with a doctor (Brendan Gleeson) showing how to manipulate her "intimate" areas to subdue her hysterics. Suffice to say, when Silas talks about how advanced medicinal studies have become and far from barbaric they now are, the audience cannot help but snicker at the thought of these advancements. And as Edward begins his stay in Stonehearst, he realizes something is truly off with how things are being run, and that something is afoot.
Twists run abound in Stonehearst Asylum, with the most effective emerging as its central plot point a half hour into the film. The problem with much of the film's set-up, though, and its constant switches in tone and who to believe, is that it makes for a convoluted story that relies on absurdity and shock value more so than reveals of character and motivation. The prisoners begging for escape, including one played by Michael Caine, add for some inventive role reversal that becomes even furthered in the second half. But here's my biggest issue: why does the film have to provide a last-minute twist that not only doesn't make much sense but also undermines the foundation of its protagonist? There's an outstanding cast here that elevates the sadistic, tonally odd material to oddly intriguing levels, particularly as Kingsley and Sturgess occupy much of the screen time. The former is always phenomenal. Beckinsale is always a talent but her role choices lately have been unexciting. The film simply underutilizes its talents on screen and never fully takes advantage of its gothic horror elements, resulting in an underwhelming feature.