Stonehearst Asylum


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Stonehearst Asylum
"The pitting of Kingsley against Caine in this context is delightful."

A remote Gothic mansion riddled with secret passageways and dank dungeons. A shy young man on a mysterious quest. A beautiful woman liable to fly into a murderous rage if she's touched. Stonehearst Asylum is screaming out the name of Edgar Allen Poe long before we pass through its wrought iron gates. It's based around events in one of his short stories, The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether, but it owes much more, thematically, to his other works, and it's hard not to see elements of Berenice and Madeline Usher in its troubled (and at one stage eponymous) heroine, Eliza Graves.

The young man, played with earnest diffidence by Jim Sturgess, introduces himself as Dr Edward Newgate, the new assistant physician, there to improve his understanding of infirmities of the mind. He's surprised to discover a regime that is far less strict than those he's seen elsewhere. Inmates wear their own clothes and even join the staff for dinner. It helps them to function more normally, explains superintendent Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley); and to the modern viewer it is, of course, a comfort to observe the asylum system at the point of shifting from a prison to a care model. But all is not as it seems. Down in the depths of the building our hero discovers Benjamin Salt (Mchael Caine), who insists that he is the true superintendent, and that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

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The pitting of Kingsley against Caine in this context is delightful, the former having played an asylum superintendent in the multi-layered Shutter Island, the latter in the differently deceptive Quills. Caine is comfortable in his role but it's Kingsley, with the more complex and nuanced character, who really dominates the film. Sturgess gets by on amiability, aided by a script which knows when to present him as an observer and when to move him into the foreground. Predictably enough, the weak link is Kate Beckinsale. She's taken over from Helena Bonham Carter as the young, vaguely gothy woman the mainstream doesn't find too intimidating (with Noomi Rapace falling down on the latter point), but there's never been much substance to her. As Eliza, however, she gets away with this better than usual, as she's essentially playing a woman whose illness distances her from the rest of the world. Again, good scripting makes more of the character than we might have expected, filling out a background for her and, in the process, passing comment on the way thousands of women found themselves trapped in the asylum system in that period. Together with the presence of a supporting character who is endlessly waiting for her son to come back from the war, this acts as a reminder of the real horror of such places, grounding the central drama.

Though the contested ground between Lamb and Salt is revealed early on, there are plenty more twists to come in a film that hinges on the insecurity of personal identity, a theme always present in Poe. All the big dramatic moments you'd expect in a Gothic tale of this kind are present - fire, mutilation, sexual brutality (with David Thewlis echoing his role in 1993's Naked) - but the result is surprisingly human. Tom Yatsko's beautifully flexible cinematography, together with strong set design, helps to capture the transient character of the era, adding depth and energy to Joe Gangemi's script as the past and future vie for control of the asylum and of the story itself. With any sufficiently advanced sociology apt to be indistinguishable from madness, there can be no easy conclusions, but the narrative here is still strong enough to carry us along, the hero's emerging obsession recontextualised by his surroundings to the point where it actually seems romantic. Meanwhile, familiar romantic notions of madness are gently - Poe would have said soothingly - given the treatment they deserve.

Despite the presence of Brad Anderson as director, his work on The Machinist having foreshadowed some of what we see here, nobody expected Stonehearst Asylum to be this good. Sadly many critics have failed to give it its due, but it's now gaining popularity thanks to good word of mouth, and one hopes it will be properly appreciated in times to come.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2015
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A medical school graduate gets more than he bargained for at a mental institution.

Director: Brad Anderson

Writer: Joe Gangemi, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Jason Flemyng, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Sinéad Cusack, Edmund Kingsley, Robert Hands, Ciara Flynn, Christopher Fulford, Andrew Dallmeyer, Guillaume Delaunay

Year: 2014

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Glasgow 2015

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