Friday, 24 April 2015



This is something of a pleasing oddity: an old-fashioned period Gothic with a cast of familiar faces and big name stars (with two Oscar-winners), yearning romance, medical ethics and a nicely hidden reveal of the Big Plot Twist which I confess I didn't see coming. According to the entirely reliable IMDb the original source short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The System Of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether, has been filmed three times before, including a part-animated adaptation by Jan Svankmeyer, but the most common version would probably be the Mexican The Mansion Of Madness (aka Dr Tarr's Torture Dungeon) from 1973, but the poor quality of the public domain DVD releases does it no favours.

Stonehearst Asylum's alternative title is Eliza Graves, which are the two least exciting titles you could think of for the film: they are literally the where and who of the story. It's 1899 and young doctor Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the remote asylum in the wilds of Scotland seeking clinical experience to go with his studies; he finds a largely agreeable and enlightened regime headed by Lamb (Ben Kingsley), in which some of the less desperate patients are put to constructive use in the kitchens and grounds, or even as nursing staff. Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) has been diagnosed as a "hysteric" (thanks to her unloving husband) but is now Lamb's second-in-command, and it's her who most catches Newgate's eye. But it's not long before Newgate finds another group of patients led by Salt (Michael Caine), locked away in the basement dungeons....

Spoiler Alert: it's frankly not a huge surprise that this second group are the genuine asylum staff imprisoned after Lamb has effectively staged a coup. This is another lunatics-have-taken-over-the-madhouse story, with the added twist that Lamb's benevolent approach is making far more progress than Salt's barbaric techniques of iced water and sexual indignities: the Bedlamites are happier and less disruptive, but Lamb is officially mad and Salt is officially a doctor. But at the heart of Stonehearst Asylum is the growing relationship between Eliza and Newgate: she clearly doesn't belong there but how can Newgate get her away?

There's always a danger with asylum-based films that it's going to step over the bad taste line and look for comedy in mental illness, and Stonehearst Asylum manages to avoid this (it does have a man who thinks he's a horse, who Lamb doesn't want to cure because he's a happy horse!). It's generally pretty good, solidly put together in a very traditional manner, without anything in the way of experiment or overtly graphic horror: it looks terrific (shot entirely in Hungary) with a standard orchestral score and a gallery of good character actors (Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack and David Thewlis all show up). Like Anderson's previous feature, The Call, it's more a film for the mainstream multiplex market than a personal, individual project such as Session 9 (which I probably need to give another go sometime). Even if it's not likely to show on many people's Top Tens, it's still well worth a look.


No comments: