Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stonehearst Asylum Makes Poe Work On The Big Screen!

The Good: Decent acting, Good plot progression
The Bad: Mediocre character development
The Basics: Stonehearst Asylum is a typical, if well-executed “lunatics running the asylum” story.

Autumn is a good time for independent cinema and I try to give the non-Oscarbait films as much attention as I give to the mainstream releases. As a result, I was pretty surprised to discover that I had missed a more-indie release in the form of Stonehearst Asylum, a film instantly notable for its impressive cast. While Stonehearst Asylum was released in late October as part of the traditional October horror movie push, the film diverts from the usual schlock by merit of having an impressive cast and being based upon a work by Edgar Allen Poe. When the likes of Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson and Sir Ben Kingsley appear in a film that is swept under the rug, it is cause for concern.

Stonehearst Asylum’s cast is led by Kate Beckingsale and Jim Sturgess and is a period piece, which might well be why the American theaters did not embrace it (or promote it). As noted, Stonehearst Asylum is based upon a short story by Edgar Allen Poe and it is worth mentioning that it is not one of Poe’s works that I recall reading.

Opening at Oxford University, 1899, where a roomful of men study hysteria in women, Eliza Graves is introduced as a madwoman that the alienist keeps on heroin to keep her calm. Edward Newgate arrives at Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum on Christmas Eve where he intends to complete his study as an alienist. Newgate meets Dr. Lamb, who runs Stonehearst. Lamb shows Newgate around, illustrating how most of the residents of this particular asylum are relatives of affluent, well-bred members of the aristocracy. Despite wanting to learn the profession to help people, Newgate sees Eliza Graves playing the piano (as Lamb’s treatment for her hysteria) and he is instantly smitten. Lamb’s egalitarian view on patients and doctors mixing affords Newgate the opportunity to interact with Graves (and embarrass himself at dinner).

Eliza rescues Newgate from drinking Mickey Finn’s elixir and advises him to get out of Stonehearst immediately. That night, Newgate hears knocking on the air vents and he follows the pipes to the boiler room. There, Newgate finds Dr. Salt and the true managers of Stonehearst imprisoned in the basement. Trying to rescue Eliza Graves, Newgate bides his time in an attempt to wrestle control of Stonehearst from Lamb. Given directions on how to find Lamb’s secret case history, Newgate struggles to overcome Lamb and save Graves, Salt and the other imprisoned staff, despite how Graves raises questions in his mind as to how she was treated before the overthrow.

Stonehearst Asylum seems at its outset to be Hysteria (reviewed here!) meets Shutter Island (reviewed here!). The latter film’s similarity is no doubt intended; Sir Ben Kingsley is placed in essentially the same role in Stonehearst Asylum as he was granted in Shutter Island! Kingsley is unsettling to watch in his role of Dr. Lamb in Stonehearst Asylum; he plays the role in such a way that Lamb is undeniably smart and yet shattered. Kingsley and Michael Caine play off one another in the exposition scenes with equal gravitas and it is unsurprising that Lamb is shellshocked. Kingsley and Caine are playing characters who are essentially playing foil characters engaged in a psychological chess match. When Kingsley has to progress beyond the disturbed elements of Lamb’s character to play him as smart, delivering social and medical commentary, Kingsley is entirely convincing.

Newgate is almost instantly characterized as a caring man who earnestly wants to help people. He arrives at the asylum naïve and genuine. Over the course of Stonehearst Asylum, he proves that he is sincere in his respect for the essential humanity of all the patients in the asylum. Newgate manages to treat one of the forlorn victims of Stonehearst and his willingness to connect with the patients is compelling. It is also the source of the social commentary throughout Stonehearst Asylum. Newgate sees the injustices against the mentally ill and wants to cure them . . . he is just caught up in a horrific circumstance that prevents him from doing the most absolute good.

The cast of Stonehearst Asylum is universally good in their roles. Kate Beckinsale is competent as Eliza Graves, but the focus on Newgate makes it completely understandable why Icon changed the title to Stonehearst Asylum (it was originally Eliza Graves). Jim Sturgess plays Newgate as increasingly tormented by his surroundings and he manages the character’s transformation from obvious hero to victim of the manipulative Lamb wonderfully. Sturgess is such a good performer that one almost forgets that his character is intent on pursuing a married woman when she is at her most vulnerable, which is pretty disturbing.

Of the supporting cast, David Thewlis is given the most to do as the rapey, murderous Mickey Finn.  This is arguably his darkest role and Thewlis leaps into it with a commitment that makes him unsettling to watch in every one of his scenes.

In all, though, the strong cast and social commentary of Stonehearst Asylum are not enough to strongly recommend the film. Stonehearst Asylum is unsettling and good, but like most horror/thriller pieces, it hinges more on mood than character and that brings it down a bit.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
10,000 Days
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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