Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) sees the beautiful, and quite mad, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) during a lecture on female hysteria. She is beautiful and her pleas for help are painfully real. Several months later, Edward arrives at Stonehearst Asylum with the title of Doctor and a mission to help the patients there. He is greeted by Micky Finn (David Thewlis), an odd thug who also appears to be the right hand man of Superintendant, Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Rather than the expected methods of mental health treatment, Dr. Lamb believes in letting the patients do meaningful work and wander the asylum. He is insistent on his methods, including one he is planning to introduce in just a few days on the first day of 1900. Edward is distracted from his work mostly taken with the beautiful Eliza Graves, who happens to be a patient at the facility. She corners him and tells him he must leave the asylum for his own safely. Edward dismisses her concerns, but after he discovers the real Superintendent (Michael Caine) and his staff starving to death in the basement, Edward must find a way to save the staff and Eliza. Micky Finn and Dr. Lamb won’t make that easy.
Many of the patients are amusing, including a man who believes he is a prize winning horse after being thrown from one. Dr. Lamb encourage the horse behavior joking, “why make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse?” Homosexual men are thrown in a weird light, having been considered to be mentally ill during the time period in question. However, crossdressing does not equal homosexuality and the film seems to not understand that. People with face masks and strange vocal ticks, as well a giant of a man, populate the halls of the hospital.
The main characters are much harder to watch. If you’ve ever loved David Thewlis from his time in Harry Potter as Professor Lupin, I urge you to not watch this movie. Thewlis’ character poisons people and is clearly both a murderer and rapist of women, including his own mother and sister. He delights in choking the life out of people as well as stabbing them in the back. Kate Beckinsale’s character is a woman diagnosed with “hysteria.” Anytime she is touched without inviting it, she freezes up and her hands turn inward. She is terrified to return to her husband after taking his eye and biting off one of his ears after months of sexual abuse at his hand. The amount of times people touch her or make her an object of sexual desire is horrifying. While it is intended to make the audience feel for her safety in the asylum, it makes her appear powerless; this is emphasized even more when she can’t do simple tasks like untie someone. Ben Kingsley gives a stellar performance as mad Dr. Lamb. He switches in an instant from calm and cool to violent fury. Kingsley’s character is such a blend of villain and hero that it becomes difficult to mentally place him in either role.
The dialogue in this film was predictable at best, cheesy love story at worst. The film is loosely based off the Edgar Allen Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” which does add to it’s eerie atmospheric approach. It does not, however, do the story justice. Dead animals are held in jars in Dr. Lamb’s office, and his experiments with early electroshock treatment are cringe-worthy. Methods of “treatment” are graphically depicted, such as water boarding and Filmed on location in Bulgaria, the forest and facility shots are Gothically beautiful.
The ending of the film feels like it was taped on to help give the American people a reason to hope. Much like the half-hearted “19 Years Later” portion of Harry Potter, or happy alternative endings, the ending to Stonehearst Asylum was saccharine sweet enough to leave this reviewer sick to her stomach.
Stonehearst Asylum is now available in theaters.