Prologue. A lecture hall of a university somewhere in Britain at the end of the 19th century. An Alienist (Brendan Gleeson) wants to demonstrate to his students how to treat “hysteria” and for that reason, his assistants roll a young woman in a wheelchair into the hall. Completely disregarding the woman’s protests, which he dismisses as the antics of a psychotic, he demonstrates on her how to put a patient into a (seemingly painful) stasis to his students.
Cut to a young man walking through the fog in the middle of the wilderness. It’s Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), a young alienist on his way to Stonehearst Asylum, a mental institution located in the middle of nowhere. To his surprise, the treatment under the quirky superintendent (Ben Kingsley) is despite the notoriety of the facility quite progressive, even for the already very progressive sensibilities of Dr. Newgate. Less dangerous patients are allowed to roam the asylum freely, dine together with the staff and some even work as servants for the resident doctors. The young woman from the prologue is also there, looking more mentally stable and happy.
Her name is revealed as “Eliza Graves” and Newgate immediately falls under the spell of the enigmatic beauty. But something is going on in the asylum and Eliza secretly warns Newgate to leave the place as long as he can.
And really, following noises coming from the basement that night, he makes a shocking discovery: Apparently the real staff members are locked away in cells, after an uprising took place and the inmates are now literally running the asylum under the murderous ex-army doctor Silas Lamb (the “real” identity of Ben Kingsley’s character). Newgate does not want to leave the institution without freeing the personnel, but he knows that their chances of surviving in the wilderness is very slim, so the only option is to play along, gain Lamb’s trust and find the key to his wicked mind.
Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Considering the promising premise and all the talent involved -Sturgess, Kingsley, Michael Caine as the real superintendent of the asylum, supported by reliable and talented actors like Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist) this should add up to a solid piece of entertainment with the potential of being outstanding, even. Sadly, it’s one of those many films that don’t even approximately live up to the potential the original plot or the talent involved would suggest.
So what did go wrong in this case? The first thing that sticks out is one of my main complaints about this film, namely how relentlessly hammy the acting is. While all members of the main cast have been guilty of hamming it up at at least once occasion in their career, each of them has also delivered good to great performances before, so it’s quite baffling that really everybody without exception is worshipping at the altar of the god of overacting. And not even in an entertaining way, as it’s sadly more the kind of flat, lifeless overacting that implies a lack of directing as well as a well-defined characterization in the script, not the fun, juicy Hammer Films overacting that might be appropriate for this genre.
This is quite damaging to the suspense factor, as neither Ben Kingsley’s wild-eyed doctor nor David Thewlis, who interprets his role as the asylum’s housekeeper as a parody of a stereotypical Victorian era street thug, are particularly fear-inducing as villains. Not that Sturgess would be any more convincing or relatable as a caricature of a distraught doctor and on top of that, his love story with Eliza, a major propellant of the plot, is as phoney as it is corny. Given that prerequisite, it’s not surprising that the psychological aspect can be dismissed, so what remains is the Gothic tale underneath.
Unfortunately it does not fare much better in that regard, because for some reason the director was unable to create a compelling atmosphere. While the setting is appropriately eerie, the cinematography is far too mundane to create a proper Gothic feeling. Like pretty much any facet of this film, the framing and composition can be best described with the attribute “adequate” and the visuals are no comparison to what we have already seen in that genre. The same goes for the story that soon treads very well-known and predictable ways, with a plot chugging along with no sense of urgency over a far too long running time, yet when it finally pulls a twist in the end, we paradoxically wish it wouldn’t have done that, as it feels too ludicrous and tacked on.
Interesting motives and themes are carelessly squandered, some interesting questions are brought up, but never satisfyingly explored. Albeit the practices of the 19th century psychiatry are a never-ending source of horror and fascination equally, the depiction is again not up to par with that of similar outputs and is missing that certain quality that makes you squirm uncomfortably in your seat while watching. Knowing that the film is very loosely based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, its lack of darkness and grimness appear even more wondrous.
How did it happen that the once so promising Anderson churns out such an impersonal and workmanlike effort after only a few movies at this point in his career already?
Mediocre at best and lazy at its worst, Stonehearst Asylum is frustratingly unambitious despite an excelling premise. Even after putting any (justified or unjustified) expectations that the cast or the plot might evoke aside, only a barely entertaining film remains, good enough for a lazy rainy Sunday afternoon, but nothing more. Ironically enough, Stonehearst Asylum lacks a certain necessary insanity to be good in the end.