'Escaping the Mad House: The Nellie Bly Story': TV Review

A wild palate cleanser to clear out the wintry cobwebs of the brain.
1/19/2019

Lifetime's deliciously silly gothic horror movie explores the real-life tale of a 19th century journalist who commits herself to a mental asylum to expose the abuses inside.

If the British have their beautiful "English roses" who always look dignified in a jewel-toned corset, then we have our bedraggled "American weeds" who always look pummeled in a gray shift dress. Forget the prim Kate Winslets, Keira Knightleys and Vivien Leighs of the world when all you need is a grimacing Christina Ricci being tormented with leeches.

You might vaguely recall the name "Nellie Bly" from your high school history unit on the progressive activism of the turn of the 20th century, a vocab word to look up in the back of your social studies textbook along with "yellow journalism," "muckraking," "Ida B. Wells" and "Jacob Riis." Bly was perhaps the first celebrity stunt journalist, an intrepid investigator who lived her stories: Over 130 years ago, she traveled around the world in just 72 days to show up novelist Jules Verne and purposefully got herself committed to New York's Women's Lunatic Asylum in order to expose its deplorable conditions. The latter endeavor inspires — I repeat, inspires — Lifetime's watchable gothic horror movie Escaping the Mad House: The Nellie Bly Story, which delectably twists Bly's brave real-life undertaking into a winding tale of amnesia, gaslighting and brutality.

Ricci plays Bly, called Nellie Brown while she's held at the institution, a young woman who's sure she's sane, yet can't remember how she ended up at this dank, wretched place. It's the winter of 1887 and she's trapped on Blackwell's Island in New York's East River, just a short boat ride from bustling Manhattan. Her fellow patients include indigent sex workers, grizzled seniors with dementia and silenced immigrants who ended up here simply because they can't speak English — each one denounced as "insane" and locked away. The women are fed whitish gruel while the staff dine on pink roasts before their eyes. They're kept in chains and made to bathe in cold, dirty bathwater while the nurses verbally abuse them. A crone named Matron Grady (Judith Light) oversees their care, sneering at them about ritual and routine like a pious Mrs. Danvers. ("She could see the evil in the crotch of a tree," Nellie scoffs.)  Nellie's only savior is handsome psychiatrist Dr. Josiah (Josh Bowman), who only wants to help her find her true identity — OR DOES HE?

At times, Escaping the Mad House is gloriously goofy in execution, filled with histrionic scenes of kerosene baths, genital torture, intentional drowning and self-immolation. But perhaps the scariest moment of the film is when the person Nellie trusts most turns out to be more innately villainous than even her captors, a quality lesson on the nature of consent. Like a grown-up version of A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic story of a formerly wealthy orphan trapped at a boarding school helmed by a wicked headmistress, this film coils your sympathies toward the protagonist's entitled status: Just as Sara Crewe doesn't deserve cruelty because of her identity, Nellie Bly doesn't deserve this mistreatment because she is the famous reporter. (It's doesn't help that, as a child, I mistakenly thought the 1995 film adaptation's villainess was also played by Judith Light, not Eleanor Bron.) You become so tied up in Nellie's false imprisonment, you almost forget how awful this place is for the other women, too.

Ricci, who's always done well by her darkly curious characters (Wednesday Addams, Lizzie Borden), is convincing as a marked woman. But it's Light who ravages the screen, her Matron Grady filled with the class-based self-hatred of a woman Inspector Javert, another abused street urchin who rose up to denigrate other marginalized people. She has the empathy fatigue of calloused people who believe that, "If I could get through this suffering, you could, too.) At the very least, she's a true believer in her methods.

Thematically and visually, Escaping the Mad House reminds me of last year's brilliant miniseries Alias Grace (on Netflix) — the damp and pitiless period setting, the endless poor women being thrown away like trash, the hot young doctor who seemingly just wants to explore the mind of a vulnerable woman. Of course, this movie isn't nearly as delicate as that series, but it's a good ride if you want a wild little intermezzo in between your staid winter programming. Ya know, it's true-ish enough.

Cast: Christina Ricci, Judith Light, Josh Bowman, Anja Savcic, Nikki Duval, Lauren Cochrane

Executive Producers: Jonathan Baruch, David Sigal, Michael Tive

Premiered: Saturday, Jan. 19, 8 p.m. ET (Lifetime)