In ‘Stonehearst Asylum’, the Inmates Are in Charge

Stonehearst Asylum is Interestingly positioned at the crossroads between conceding inmates as fearsome criminals and as victims.

Historically and generally speaking, the emotionally imbalanced aren’t treated well by people who consider themselves “normal”. We’ve heard the horrors of life in asylums and mental hospitals from Medieval times onward, where treatments included ice water baths, metal brain spikes, and destructive drugs.

Yet in movies, these same figures tend to be treated as savants and victims, people with special insights, or at least people played by Brad Pitt or Winona Ryder. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on inspired by Ken Kesey’s book, typifies recent approaches. True, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is only pretending to be insane in order to get out of a legal jam, but the film’s humanizing of the other patients and its powerful critique of institutionalization leaves its audience in complete sympathy with the inmates rather than their cruel caregivers. Other films also offer complex and compassionate portraits of people who don’t fit in: from The Elephant Man to Chattahoochee to The Fisher King, so-called patients are celebrated for their differences, even as their doctors are turned into sadists or representatives of a despotic ruling class.

Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum, based very loosely on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”, follows this storyline right over a cliff quite literally at film’s start, when an escaped patient throws himself over one rather than return to the titular institution). Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), newly graduated from Oxford and looking for clinical experience, is en route to that very asylum, located in the North of England during the 19th century. His route takes him through a foggy forest. Stonehearst exists in an unspecified area apparently prone to a combination of winter snow, thick fog, and thunderstorms.

Eventually, standing before the asylum’s sinister gate, the significantly named Newgate meets the menacing chief steward Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), who takes him to the hospital administrator, Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), a kindly chap in an immaculate lab coat, who helpfully shows him the premises.

Dr. Lamb seems to have had great success employing what would now be referred to as patient-centric care, allowing the men and women in his charge to live their lives as freely as possible. At first, to a humanist such as Newgate, whose gentle touch and empathy allow him to work small wonders with his patients, it seems an ideal way to treat the afflicted. But his sense of comfort is short-lived. For one thing, the lovely but damaged Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) warns him to escape as soon as possible. For another, upon investigation of a strange knocking sound from some basement pipes, Newgate discovers a slew of imprisoned people behind rusty metal fencing, including Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and Mrs. Pike (Sinéad Cusack) who claim, rather convincingly, to be the actual staff of the hospital, which has been overtaken by Dr. Lamb and his associates.

Complicating matters further, it is strongly suggested that Dr. Salt is something of a sadist himself, determined to find each patient’s deepest fear in the mistaken belief that probing into that manifestation will lead him to find a cure. While it soon becomes clear that Dr. Lamb — who used to be a physician in the war — is himself quite deranged, the style of care that he offers the inmates in place of the senselessly barbarous treatment under Dr. Salt proves to be highly successful, even if he also somewhat gleefully employs a crude, early electro-shock machine to wipe clean the mind of anyone who challenges his authority.

Still, the film isn’t so much concerned with parsing such ethical and political conundra. By its end, Stonehearst Asylum focuses instead on the nuts-and-bolts of a plot that carries us through to an altogether too predictable conclusion, one that Poe (hardly a sentimentalist) would have likely rejected. Interestingly positioned at the crossroads between conceding inmates as fearsome criminals and as victims, the movie hedges its bets.

RATING 6 / 10