Film Review: Stonehearst Asylum

Not at all the psycho shriek-fest its Halloween-proximate release might suggest, 'Stoneheart Asylum' is a handsome psychological cat-and-mouse game featuring excellent performances by a powerhouse cast.

1899: Diffident and mild-mannered, newly minted Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) has no idea what to expect of his new position at Stonehearst Asylum, an institution that specializes in the treatment of mentally disordered members of distinguished families–there's even a relative of the Queen among its 200 residents. And at first he's pleasantly surprised: Though isolated, it's not a crumbling hellhole and superintendent Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley) makes it clear from the outset that he and the previous superintendent, Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), are progressive thinkers. Rather than locking patients in dark rooms and cutting holes in their skulls to release the demons, they treat them as though they were sane, on the theory that people will rise or fall to the level of others' expectations.
And it appears to be working: The patients are an odd bunch, some more conspicuously so than others, but on the whole they're clean, decently dressed, well-fed and capable of interacting fairly normally with other people. Still, says Lamb with a practiced flourish, their troubles range from the mundane–alcoholism and drug addiction–to the baroque, like the professional polo player who took a nasty tumble mid-game and woke up believing himself a horse. And then there's the elegant, cultured Mrs. Graves (Kate Beckinsale), who was committed for stabbing her husband when he forced his perverted sexual attentions on her—even the nurses agree that it's not right she should be locked up, but his family trumped hers and she was committed by her own father to avoid social disgrace.
But Newgate begins to have his suspicions about Stonehearst, starts poking around and–this isn't a spoiler, since it takes place a half-hour into a movie that runs nearly two hours–discovers the real staff is locked up in the maze of old-school iron cages in the basement. The inmates are now running the asylum. But rather than ride off and return with the authorities, Dr. Newgate stays, a prisoner of his love for the skittish Mrs. Graves and…well, that would be telling.
Moviegoers looking for a slasher movie or a vampire blood orgy would do well to look elsewhere: Stonehearst Asylum is so restrained that parts of it could be mistaken for scenes from “Downton Abbey”. But while the film lacks the macabre humor of the original story, under Brad (Session 9) Anderson's unobtrusive direction it does an excellent job of conveying the creeping horror of Victorian medicine, particularly as it pertained to the mentally ill in general and mentally ill women in particular. Dr. Salt's early lecture to a hall filled with fellow physicians owes more to carnival sideshows than to serious healthcare education, and the array of medical devices on display look as though they belong in a David Cronenberg movie. They're really scary.

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