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Perhaps it’s apt that a decrepit boiler room is one of Stonehearst Asylum‘s major settings. In his latest outing, Brad Anderson has basically thrown everything into the film’s furnace so as to keep its wobbly narrative running — to no avail, sadly: As the leaps between genre tropes and divergent threads exposes ever wider plot holes, this incoherent adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe (Joe Gangemi wrote the screenplay) short story attempts endless twists and turns, culminating in a supposedly cathartic denouement drenched in sap.
Making its European bow at the Rome Film Festival on Oct. 22 before opening domestically in the U.S. on Oct. 24, Stonehearst Asylum might recoup part of its budget through the appeal of Kate Beckinsale. The Underworld star somehow gets a chance to flex her actioner chops in this film, even when she’s playing a fragile, psychologically unwell Victorian-era aristocrat.
While not exactly the protagonist, Beckinsale is present at the very beginning of the film as a woman paraded in front of an entirely male audience of medical students as a case study of hysteria. It’s suggested that her character, Elisa Graves, has already been subjected to intrusive examinations and inhumane treatments — the professor running the show, played by Brendan Gleeson, nonchalantly speaks of sedating her with heroin — and her pleas for help are only met with a remark that, like captured criminals vowing their innocence, “Every mad woman insists she’s sane.”
Anyone hoping for a thriller exploring Victorian-era medicine’s manifest gender oppression, beware: David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method, Alice Winocour‘s excellent Augustine or even the Maggie Gyllenhaal–Hugh Dancy rom-com Hysteria would be better options. In Stonehearst Asylum, women are just collateral damage in a war between men.
In this war of asylum-set attrition, the good guy is Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), who arrives on Christmas Eve, 1899, at a far-flung mental institution to take up the job as a physicist; the bad guy, meanwhile, is Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), the asylum’s superintendent, whose seemingly benign approach toward his charges — among them Eliza — is shattered when Newgate discovers the awful truth in that basement boiler room.
That’s not really a spoiler — the twist happens well before the film’s midpoint, and the main thread here seems to be Newgate’s efforts to foil Lamb’s plans and survive in the process. Therein, however, lies the problem: Gangemi’s screenplay struggles to maintain its momentum past the key revelation, and the mind boggles at Newgate’s bizarre actions (especially given his awareness that lunatics have taken over the asylum) and the seemingly powerful Lamb’s failure to catch on that Newgate has discovered his secret.
Taking a tilt toward moral ambiguity, Stonehearst Asylum plays up the notion that normalcy and deviance are relative, artificial concepts. But this film is hardly substantial enough to sustain such suggestions; instead, the sentimental id comes to the fore as the film builds up to a climax that finds the power of love conquering all — including hysteria. Who needs shrinks when schmaltz is enough?
Production companies: Icon Films, Sobini Films in a Millennium Films presentation
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriter: Joe Gangemi, based on the story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather ” by Edgar Allan Poe
Producers: Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Mark Amin
Executive producers: Rene Besson, Christa Campbell, Mark Gill, Lati Grobman, David Higgins, Avi Lerner, Cami Winikoff
Director of photography: Thomas Yatsko
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Costume designer: Thomas Olah
Editors: Malcolm Jamieson
Casting director: Kate Dowd
Music: John Debney
Sales: Nu Image
No rating, 109 minutes
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