I write reviews so that I can take films that you already love and expand your knowledge to films that you could love. Having said that, is anyone in the mood for a psychological thriller? It’s rainy season here in New York and the perfect setting for Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum. This film flew under the radar for me until I recently approached it on Netflix. It is based loosely on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Despite its PG-13 rating, I found it exceptionally gripping, disturbing, and worth a couple of watches. Many relate the film to a less frightening Shutter Island and dismiss it for its lack of the lovely Leo. I really enjoyed Shutter Island and found myself watching it over and over with different people to find all of the plot clues and see what foreshadowing others picked up on their first go. Without divulging any plot goodies, I’ll try to convince you Stonehearst Asylum is also worth the re-watch game.
Unlike the antagonist-rich Shutter Island, Stonehearst Asylum launches into the ever-present paradox of how the human race deals with the insane. The opening scene is a disgruntling spectacle of an alienist, played by Brendon Gleeson, showing a class of medical students at Cambridge the “trigger points…the breasts, inner thighs, and ovaries” of a hysterical woman and is a startling lesson on Victorian medicine. Although Eliza Graves, played by Kate Beckinsale, seems “reasonable, well-bred, and beautiful, she is quite mad” says the alienist. After which, he explains that you can believe nothing that you see and only one half of what you hear. This ironic tagline is the means to an end destination for the characters of the film.
In the next scene we see Jim Sturgess as young Doctor Edward Newgate riding in a carriage to Stonehearst Asylum, where he is to do his residency. The man’s daughter in the carriage mentions that Newgate “looks like a man who’s lost his way, not his mind” and she believes she can tell Newgate will be a good resident because he has kind eyes. You’ll notice Anderson makes an interesting statement here about the perceptiveness of children. Upon Newgate’s arrival to the asylum shrouded by eerie fog, thunder, lightning and twilight, Mickey Finn, played by David Thewlis, comes to answer the gate. In a masterful performance, Thewlis enters looking dirty, wild; out of context for what one would think of a person caretaking at an asylum, and he literally gives me the creeps! From this moment on, the audience is led through a winding maze of what isn’t really as it seems in the asylum.
Following closely with Poe’s story, we have ‘Doctor’ Silas Lamb, played by Ben Kingsley, frowning on normal medical procedures and running his mad house more like a cruise ship. Patients can come and go as they please, dress up for dinner parties and roam the grounds and hospital as they wish. The asylum seems understaffed and rather lacking in structure and provisions. During an intense feast scene, I almost thought the patients would begin to chant, “ONE OF US GOOBLE GOBBLE” just as in Freaks (1932). Silas does not believe in curing madness and suggests no sedation, rather celebration.
While Newgate searches for the secrets to Stonehearst and pursues love interest Eliza, Anderson takes us into the back-story of many of the characters, especially Silas Lamb and Benjamin Salt, played by Michael Caine. Their characters foil each other, although in the end they seem to conclude in agreement. Salt believes animals must be broken in order to to be made men again and Lamb believes one shouldn’t make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse. Although the film has plot twists and turns similar to those in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), it can’t seem to exist in one’s mind without constantly dredging up Shutter Island, in which Ben Kingsley also plays a doctor. Both great films with dynamic cinematography and casts, Stonehearst Asylum differs in the concise decision Anderson makes about the subject matter. Unlike Shutter Island, the end of the film does not leave the audience to its own devices when dealing with thoughts and feelings of the last 112 minutes. Anderson chooses to instill a belief, shared by Dr. Lamb’s character, that the only way people differ is our social station.
Anderson allows the on-screen crazy to be portrayed by both the diagnosed ill, such as Eliza, who uses musical therapy to pacify her hysteria and seems to have a beautiful crazy-girl gravitational pull that I haven’t seen in a movie since Nell (1995); as well as the incurably sane such as Doctor Salt. Anderson proves the characters onscreen are in fact insane, but he decides that they are allowed to be, and it doesn’t make them any more or less of a spectacle to watch than the sane. He uses the juxtaposition of the new staff verses the old staff to show situational insanity and drives home the idea that there is such a thing as situational sanity.
It wasn’t all that horrifying, but rather a well thought human-interest piece. Anderson’s truth lies within the final moments of the film and the comment he makes is revolutionary. Stonehearst Asylum reminds us why the reason the term for anger is mad, the explanation of genuine affection is madly in love, and that everyone is a little crazy sometimes.