“A somewhat disappointing misfire of poorly judged screenplay, badly timed twists, and missed opportunities.”
When freshly graduated doctor, Edward Newgate arrives at the remote, snow bound Stonehearst Asylum on Christmas Eve of 1889 to take up a position working under Dr Salt, he finds that all is not as he expected – Dr Salt has been replaced by a new institution superintendent Dr Lamb, who kindly agrees to still take him on. Much to Newgate’s surprise and trepidation, Lamb is practicing some unusual methods that not only finds the many patients odd behaviours pandered to, but also finds the majority of them freely working as staff at the asylum as well. As Newgate becomes further and further taken by one of these patients – the beautiful Eliza Graves – he tries to reconcile these practices with his own ideas about treatment, until a series of events leads him to a terrible discovery that proves that nothing in this strange place is as it seems.
With all of the potential inherent in Stonehearst Asylum – a gothic thriller based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, that is set in the atmospheric environs of an isolated insane asylum, featuring a great cast that boasts the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale, while also having Brad Anderson, the director of the much lauded The Mechanic, at the helm – you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would bound to be a sure-fire winner. It’s a shame then that, despite having all of the right ingredients to hand, the end result is a somewhat disappointing misfire of poorly judged screenplay, badly timed twists, and missed opportunities.
While certainly grabbing the attention early on during a prelude that finds Newgate attending a somewhat horrifying lecture given by Gleeson’s ‘the alienist’, and then continuing on to at least hold the interest for some time as we are introduced to Dr Lamb and the many inhabitants of the titular retreat, any traction is quickly lost as the films major plot twist is revealed around half way into proceedings. Granted, it’s a twist that many may see coming a mile off, yet confirming it for all to see so early on seems an odd move, and doing so only results in any remaining wind being firmly knocked of the sails of the second act.
Things are only hampered still further by an increasingly meandering screenplay that seems desperate to have something to say about the nature of madness and the barbarism that was once inherent in the treatment of the mentally ill, yet fails to ever really realise the opportunity to do so effectively. This is especially disappointing given how successfully Anderson has previously explored such areas, and there is no doubt that if it had been done well, it is indeed what could have lifted the film beyond an everyday gothic thriller.
There are some good things to be had here, however. Beautifully shot, everything on offer looks fantastic, and the atmospheric, remote locations, as well as the asylum itself are all captured wonderfully, while the very fine production work only goes to help capture the films gothic sensibilities. Acting too is very strong from almost all involved – Kingsley as the somewhat off-kilter Dr Lamb, Sturgess as the conflicted Edward Newgate, and Thewlis as the menacing staff member Micky Finn in particular giving performances beyond that which the plot really deserves. Both Caine and Gleeson too give typically strong performances, despite both (Gleeson in particular) being criminally underused in their supporting roles – a missed opportunity for sure – while Beckinsale too is admirable in her role of Graves, regardless of the early promise of her character being somewhat diminished as the tale unfolds.
Given that the title of this film was originally Eliza Graves, perhaps there was at one time a better film here than the one which it eventually became. As it stands though, much like the 2010 Martin Scorsese mental asylum thriller Shutter Island before it, Stonehearst Asylum holds promise aplenty, but in the end will leave the viewer disappointed and wishing for the film that could have been.
Director: Brad Anderson.
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson
Release date (UK): DVD 22 June 2015
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