At this point, hundreds of films have been made based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. That's certainly understandable considering Poe's knack for conjuring killer concepts (if you'll pardon the pun), but many of the iconic writer's tales are too short to fill a feature-length film. As such, writers and directors adapting Poe are often required to fill the gaps with their own material. Back in the 1960s – when Poe's work was often placed in the hands of Roger Corman and Vincent Price – that often meant a surplus of spine-tingling B-movie schlock. With Stonehearst Asylum (based on the Poe tale “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”), director Brad Anderson aims a little higher and attempts to deliver a thoughtful, serious-minded expansion of Poe's work. It has its moments, but it's hard not to feel that a little of that old B-movie energy might have gone a long way.
Our tales centers on Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess, Cloud Atlas), a young physician who has just taken a position at Stonehearst Asylum. The asylum is headed by Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List), whose methods of treating his patients are alternately progressive, humane and bizarre. Lamb is more interested in soothing his patients than in curing them, and he's more than willing to indulge their assorted delusions for the sake of keeping them happy. Stonehearst is surrounded by miles and miles of empty British countryside, which keeps Lamb relatively free from prying eyes. Newgate finds some of Lamb's methods curious and even objectionable, and over time begins to suspect that something fishy is going on.
Minor spoiler for Stonehearst Asylum, major spoiler for its source material: the Poe story builds to the big revelation that the inmates are, in fact, running the asylum. Anderson opts to use this revelation not as a climax but as a starting point, making this fact known very early on and focusing instead on how Newgate attempts to handle this discovery. It seems that Lamb was a former inmate, but led a revolt and turned the sanest of his fellow inmates into staff members. Stonehearst was previously run by Dr. Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine, The Prestige), who is now kept as a prisoner in the asylum's basement dungeon. Salt begs Newgate for help, but Newgate's options are limited: he can only do so much without raising Lamb's suspicions, and he's always being watched by Lamb's savage enforcer Mickey Finn (David Thewlis, Naked).
The most intriguing patient at Stonehearst is Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld), who offers no obvious traces of insanity. She's intelligent, civilized and multi-talented (Newgate first meets her as she's playing a beautiful original composition on the asylum piano), but occasionally suffers from alarming seizures. Newgate is convinced of her sanity, and his irritation with Lamb is largely rooted in Lamb's insistence that Eliza is incurably mad. Perhaps inevitably, Newgate also begins to develop romantic feelings for his lovely patient. A tacked-on love story added in the hopes of expanding the film's audience? Perhaps, but it's more than that. It's worth noting that the film's original title was Eliza Graves.
Anderson is mostly known as a horror/thriller director (he began his career with the unsettling Session 9, and more recently helmed the poorly-reviewed Halle Berry vehicle The Call), but here shifts into something closer to classical melodrama. The film's strongest moments are those in which it reveals the depths of the asylum's problems and takes a long, hard look at just how broken most of these people populating this tale truly are. The structural ideas are fairly sound, but the film feels a bit too bloodless most of the time. There are several sequences that beg for some old-school theatricality – perhaps something like Kenneth Branagh's work on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or Brian De Palma's work on a lot of things – but Anderson seems indecisive about whether to embrace low-key realism or operatic fire. This is the sort of movie in which perfectly-timed thunderclaps appear at appropriate moments, wolves howl after dramatic line readings and minor-key orchestral melodies soar on the soundtrack with each new plot revelation, but the film seems slightly embarrassed about that side of its personality. Stonehearst Asylum is clearly inspired by Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (a notion enhanced by the fact that Kingsley – for a while, anyway – seems to be repeating his performance from that film), but it lacks both the cinematic fire and the serious-minded weight of Scorsese's masterful work.
The other major problem is that the film is centered on a mostly uninteresting person. Newgate isn't much of a character, which is partially a script issue and partially a casting issue. Jim Sturgess gives the kind of performance he's been giving since his big breakthrough in Across the Universe: a competent, sincere, bland turn that never rises above “good enough.” Sturgess has more screen time than anyone else in the film, but he's almost never the most interesting thing on the screen at any given moment. I don't dislike the guy, but as ever, Sturgess is merely “there.” Beckinsale fares considerably better, though that's at least partially due to the fact that she has a much better part to play. Through Eliza, the film offers a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the way women were once treated in society. In 1899, a woman could be declared insane for something as simple as having an emotional outburst. Alas, emotional outbursts are all-but-inevitable when you're under the thumb of cruel men. It's a refreshing change-of-pace for Beckinsale, a talented actress who is unfortunately defined by her forgettable turns in forgettable thrillers.
Beckinsale's work isn't the only thing to admire here. It's a pleasure to watch old pros like Caine and Kingsley engaging in verbal duels; quietly savage exchanges filled with mutual contempt. Thewlis seems to be having a grand time in his nasty supporting role, playing some of the film's darkest scenes with a devilish smirk. There are several compelling twists contained within the film's second hour, and none of them feel cheap or unearned. The movie never loses its sense of humanity, and never pretends that there's an easy, obvious answer to something as complicated as curing insanity. Despite all of this, it's hard to escape the feeling that Stonehearst Asylum is a little duller than it ought to be. This isn't a bad movie, but one wishes that it had the resolve to really commit to its boldest moments. To put it another way: it lacks madness.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2014