alienists, alternate title, Asylum, based on a short story, Ben Kingsley, Benjamin Salt, Brad Anderson, Brendan Gleeson, cinema, David Thewlis, Don't Look in the Basement, dramas, Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Newgate, electro-shock therapy, Eliza Graves, Even Dwarfs Started Small, film reviews, films, Gothic, Guillaume Delaunay, House of Crazies, inmates, insane asylum, insane asylums, insanity, isolated estates, Jason Flemyng, Jim Sturgess, Joe Gangemi, Kate Beckinsale, King of Hearts, Lady Eliza Graves, lobotomies, love story, lunatics, madhouse, medical school, mental breakdown, mental illness, Michael Caine, Movies, mysteries, period-piece, Session 9, set in 1890s, Shutter Island, Sinéad Cusack, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Stonehearst Asylum, The Call, The Machinist, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, Tom Yatsko, Transsiberian, twist ending, Vanishing on 7th Street
Back in the 2000s, writer-director Brad Anderson was responsible for two of the most interesting, thought-provoking films of the decade: Session 9 (2001) and The Machinist (2004). While Session 9 was a subtle, endlessly creepy psychological chiller about a supposedly haunted, abandoned insane asylum, The Machinist showcased Christian Bale in a haunting role as an emaciated factory worker suffering from insomnia and really seemed to put Anderson on the map. After being duly impressed by both films (Session 9, in particular, is a phenomenal horror film and truly frightening), I eagerly awaited what seemed, on the outside, to be the ascension of a brilliant filmmaker. And then…nothing.
When Anderson finally followed-up The Machinist with 2008’s Transsiberian, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Unlike his previous two films, Transsiberian was average, at best, a Hitchcock-lite exercise that had been done much more effectively by Sam Raimi with A Simple Plan (1998). While the film wasn’t terrible and featured a good turn by Woody Harrelson, it was a notable step-down from The Machinist. After Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) showed up, however, my disappointment turned into a sort of dismal acceptance: not only was Vanishing worse than Transsiberian, it managed to be a fairly awful film, by any definition. Marked by iffy acting, a scenario that felt cobbled together from much better films and a decided lack of common sense, Vanishing on 7th Street was the first legitimately bad film of Anderson’s I’d seen. After spending the next few years working in television, Anderson returned to the big-screen with the Halle Berry-starring howler The Call (2013), which only seemed to drive home the fact that the party was over. Suffice to say, he fell off my radar at that point.
Which, of course, brings us to the present with Stonehearst Asylum (2014), Anderson’s follow-up to the critically reviled The Call. Since I no longer had any particular expectations one way or the other, I was able to approach the film with a relatively clean slate, so to speak. From the outside, there certainly seem to be a lot of positives here: Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley top-line the cast (never a bad thing), it’s a period-piece set in a turn of the century insane asylum (always a cool setting/time) and it’s listed as an adaptation of Poe’s classic short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” On paper, this would definitely seem to have all the earmarks of an effective, low-key psycho-drama. In reality, however, Stonehearst Asylum (originally titled Eliza Graves) is much closer to Transsiberian: decidedly average and middle of the road, Anderson’s newest film features some good acting and plenty of nicely realized Gothic atmosphere but is a decidedly “been-there, done-that” affair. It’s always problematic when a film’s big “twist” can be parsed within the first quarter of the film, especially when the film makes great efforts to obscure this fact, only to deliver the self-same “twist” that was previously discovered.
Taking the basic narrative of Poe’s story but expanding upon it (in ways both effective and decidedly less so), Stonehearst Asylum tells the story of Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), a newly graduated “alienist” (a doctor who specializes in asylum patients) who finds himself at the mysterious, Gothic Stonehearst Asylum. Once there, he meets the eccentric staff, including Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), the head administrator; Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), the earthy, vaguely threatening chief steward; Lady Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a piano-playing patient who also seems to serve on the staff and Millie (Sophie Kennedy Clark), the swoony nurse who seems to be smitten with the young doctor.
Settling into his rounds, Newgate discovers that the asylum employs a decidedly unconventional approach: not only are the patients not restricted in their movements or activities, they’re also encouraged in their various psychoses. One patient fancies himself a horse, so Lamb and the staff hand-feed him and “brush him down” regularly. “Why turn a perfectly happy horse into a miserable man?” Lamb impishly responds when Newgate asks why he doesn’t attempt to “cure” the poor, delusional fellow. Most of the patients at Stonehearst are “outcasts” and “embarrassments to their families,” Lamb continues, and have been, for all intents and purposes, abandoned at the facility.
In very short order, Newgate seems to be falling hard for Lady Graves, who suffers from a particularly debilitating form of “female hysteria”: any time she’s touched by a man, her body locks up in a rigid, paralytic state and she becomes completely unresponsive. She looks the piano, however, and her and Newgate begin to bond over their shared affinity for music. At this point, Stonehearst Asylum begins to seem like a Gothic romance, a story about star-crossed, ill-fated lovers doomed to feint and pirouette around each other like so many shadows. There is, of course, another shoe waiting in the wings.
This other shoe drops with a resounding thud when Newgate happens to look into the basement and discovers a group of filthy, hungry people locked in cages. Horrified, he listens in stunned disbelief as the leader of the group, a man who calls himself Dr. Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), explains that the captives are the real staff of the asylum: Lamb and the other patients overthrew them, imprisoned them and took over the facility. In the strictest sense of the term, the inmates, according to Salt, are running the asylum. In a case of extreme agitation, Newgate approaches Eliza with his discovery and she seems to confirm Salt’s story, with one caveat: the former administrators of the asylum were monsters who tortured the patients in the name of “science” and deserve to be caged.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Newgate doesn’t seem to have anywhere to turn. Although Eliza confirmed Salt’s story, certain discrepancies indicate that either (or both) parties might be lying. If Salt’s story is true, Newgate is in terrible danger, especially if Lamb and the others discover that he knows the truth. If Eliza is telling the truth, however, imprisoning Salt and the others is more an act of self-defense than anything else: restoring the original balance of power could have tragic results for all involved. As everyone around him (including the caged prisoners) continue to act in increasingly erratic, troubling ways, Newgate must figure out how to get both himself and Eliza out safely, even though she’s explained that she has no intention of leaving. Newgate must be quick, however: Dr. Lamb has just developed a new technique called “electro-shock therapy” and he’s quite eager to test it out…if Edward isn’t careful, he might find his stay at Stonehearst to be a bit more permanent than he might’ve hoped.
As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot working in the film’s favor. For one thing, the Gothic atmosphere is always thick and highly effective: aside from Session 9, this is, easily, Anderson’s most atmospheric work. Thick wisps of fog obscure the hulking, angular asylum’s exterior walls, long, dark halls hold endless secrets and the continuous cries and laughing of the insane form a cacophonous soundtrack to the events. The asylum, itself, is a great location and cinematographer Tom Yatsko shoots it to great effect. The cast is also, for the most part, quite effective: while Sturgess and Beckinsale are blandly vanilla as the potential lovers, they’re surrounded by a suitably colorful cast doing some nice work. While Kingsley and Caine occasionally slide from “passionate” into “melodramatic,” they’re still both rock-solid and their handful of shared scenes are an easy highlight. I actually wish that Caine would do more low-key genre work like this: he’s pretty great and lends an air of prestige to the film that certainly helps elevate it.
There’s also plenty of great performances from Thewlis as the ultra-slimy Finn (the scene where he slow-burns over Newgate’s jokey comment about his name is genuinely scary), Clark as the (presumably) nymphomaniac nurse and Brendan Gleeson, in a glorified cameo, as the head alienist. There are plenty of quirky psychiatric conditions on display here, most of which make for (at the very least) some highly entertaining scenes: the man-horse bit is pretty damn great, truth be told. The film is also able to whip up some decent tension, especially as conditions in the asylum begin to rapidly degrade and we can start to see the unfortunate writing on the wall. The lobotomy scene is both effective and highly disturbing and there’s an incredibly chilling scene involving a pair of escapees that manages to be both beautifully visual and a subtle gut-punch.
On the downside, however, Stonehearst Asylum is just never quite as surprising or inventive as it should be (or thinks it is, to be honest). As mentioned, the film’s big “twist” is pretty apparent at about 30 minutes into the film, which makes the various “slight of hand” machinations at the end seem both unnecessary and a little offensive. It’s the equivalent of trying to run a shell game with only one shell: we know exactly where the pea is, so moving the shell in endless circles doesn’t really do anything. The film is also about 30 minutes too long: it would have been much more effective as a tidy 80-90 minute sprint but quickly runs out of ideas and energy when stretched to marathon-length. The use of flashbacks to illustrate one character’s fractured mental state is both ineffective and confusing and the ultimate “twist” makes so little sense as to be almost completely arbitrary. In many ways, Anderson seems to be trying to approximate the look and feel of Cronenberg’s latter-day “prestige” pictures, such as A Dangerous Method (2011) without any of his trademark character development: it’s definitely a far cry from the anguished internalism of The Machinist or, even, Session 9.
Ultimately, Stonehearst Asylum is decent enough, which is actually part of the issue. While well-made and sturdily acted, nothing here stands out: this exact same storyline has already been explored (to much greater effect) in films like Asylum (1972), Don’t Look in the Basement (1973), Shutter Island (2010)…none of these are necessarily classics but all manage to come up with more unique scenarios than we find here. This isn’t a terrible film but it does seem like a terribly unnecessary one: by-the-book, largely bereft of genuine surprise and unevenly paced, Stonehearst Asylum will probably only be of interest if something…say, a lobotomy, for example…has managed to wipe out all memories of other, better films. Check in to Stonehearst if you like but, unless you’re nuts, you might want to find better accommodations.