Title: Stonehearst Asylum
Director: Brad Anderson
Major Players: Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Kate Beckinsale
Out Of Five: 3 – by a whisker
Now here’s an interesting approach to film distribution. Release a movie in just one chain of cinemas – and not the biggest one – and make it available online both on demand and for download. Perhaps it’s the shape of things to come. Or perhaps it sniffs of lack of confidence in the film.
Whatever the reason, it’s the route taken by distributors Lionsgate for their latest offering, Stonehearst Asylum, which had its first outing in this country earlier this year in the FrightFest strand at the Glasgow Film Festival. Yet it’s not really a horror film. True, there’s some gory moments, but nothing that’s going to make you jump out of your skin or scare you. It’s more of a thriller, in a gothic, Victorian setting.
Based loosely on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, the story takes place the turn of the century. Medical student, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the remote Stonehearst Asylum to further his studies and experience the methods of the institution. At its head is Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), a believer in modern, progressive treatments for the mentally ill. But Newgate soon realises there’s more going on at Stonehearst, with a sinister secret buried deep underneath the building.
It’s difficult to describe this one without too many spoilers, but let’s say the asylum’s had a change of management, and an unofficial one. It’s moved from treating its patients in a conventional and accepted way – drug treatment, cold water etc – to something more radical but one that has resonances with the present day. Minimal drugs, understanding and exposing patients to something closer to the real world so that they can develop as people is all part of Lamb’s regime. It seems a more forward thinking, humane approach – but, inevitably, it doesn’t stop there. Lamb is experimenting with electric shock treatment, seemingly at odds with the rest of his approach to mental illness. And this is where the balance shifts.
The idea of the lunatics taking over the asylum is hardly new and there are parts of the film that descend into cliché: Danse Macabre forms part of the soundtrack and the fact that it’s there rather makes you feel that director Brad Anderson has either run out of ideas or is just going through the motions. Or both. But there is an interesting idea lurking behind the scenes and one that would have been considered shockingly enlightened when the story was originally written.
The story, and the film, was originally called Eliza Graves and it’s her character that provides the real reason for Newgate to come to the asylum in the first place, having seen her used an example of insanity at a lecture. She’s little more than a catalyst, and not an especially powerful one, so all Kate Beckinsale has to do in the role is pose beautifully in her corseted frock and breathe deeply so that her bosom heaves. And that’s about it.
Director Anderson has invested in a couple of big British names, presumably to help attract an audience across the pond. Kingsley is well cast as Lamb: a real contradiction and the hint of something sinister barely underneath the surface is there from the outset. Michael Caine, however, doesn’t exactly have to exert himself as Salt, the previous superintendent, and essentially phones in his performance. And there’s other classy British names who are just doing as much as they need to, no more no less: David Thewlis as Kingsley’s nasty right hand man, Sinead Cusack as one of Caine’s staff, even Brendan Gleeson who tops and tails the film as a lecturing doctor and who provides the twist in the tail. Trouble is it’s a rather implausible one.
Nobody is who they seem in this. Sometimes Stonehearst Asylum makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. And despite a good cast, it’s short on thrills and suspense. It’s more like Suspense-lite Asylum.
Stonehearst Asylum is in Showcase cinemas and available on demand and for download online.