Stonehearst Asylum Blu-ray Review: Might Make Poe Proud

Coming this week to a retailer near you is Stonehearst Asylum, a 19th Century thriller of sorts from Brad Anderson, the man behind such films as The Machinist, The Call, Transsiberian, and Session 9. Stonehearst is based on the short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” by Edgar Allan Poe.

The film begins in Oxford, UK in 1899 with a demonstration of eliciting a psychotic response in a patient for instructional purposes. This scene hints at the barbaric practices of treating the insane that are nowadays considered heinous and foul and “how did we think that was a good idea?” A scene or two later, we find Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) on his way to study clinical practice at Stonehearst Asylum in the British countryside. He meets with the superintendent Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) and his assistant Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), is welcomed in, and invited to dinner. There are several small things that seem slightly off, but nothing that makes Newgate or the viewer stop and ask serious questions.

What does stand out is the radical change toward empathetic treatment of patients, letting them roam the halls freely, dress as they like, and not trying to change, challenge, or alter their delusions. If a man thinks he’s a horse, they groom him; if a patient believes himself to be a chicken, they feed him corn. Seems to be having a rather positive effect on patient outcomes, at least in the near-term. Patients who were in opiate comas are now functional and even helpful and conversational among the group. This portion speaks to the ongoing modern-day struggle to balance actively treating the mentally disturbed with letting them find their own peace.

At dinner, Edward gets his first definite taste that something is amiss, being warned to leave immediately by one of the patients, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). Shortly thereafter — and I don’t consider this to be a spoiler since it literally says on the Blu-ray packaging “The lunatics are running the asylum” — Edward discovers that the real staff of the facility are locked in cages in the basement, and that the nuts are in fact running the nut-house, posing as nurses and orderlies and doctors and some still as patients.

In Poe’s original work, the story culminates at dinner, the proper owners of the asylum break free, and the patients who choreographed the coup are put back in their rooms. Not so here. This is just the beginning. Edward develops a fondness for Eliza, works with her to plot against Dr. Lamb and to free Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and the other proper wards of Stonehearst. Their path is fraught with peril, but it’s more of a suspenseful mystery than a proper thriller in my book. How the whole thing shakes out is worth a watch, so I won’t go into too much more detail other than to say there are a handful of unpleasant moments and other twists you might not see coming.

However, the very last twist — done in a very Shyamalan-esque way — actually hurts the story and two main characters’ developments up to that point. Sometimes you get a twist where someone’s not who you think they are that makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about them, reveals layers of complexity or cunning, encourages rewatching the movie, and the like. Not so here. It actually takes some of the morality, behavior, decisions, and motivation of a couple of main players and voids it almost entirely. That bit was disappointing for me and cast a shadow on everything I’d seen before it.

The picture quality at 1080p and the TrueHD audio are on par with other BD productions and very easy on the eyes and ears. Ms. Beckinsale in high definition wearing an off-the-shoulder Victorian era gown? Yes please. Special features amount to only a making-of featurette and trailers for other flicks.

Ultimately, Stonehearst Asylum is a good-if-not-great suspense flick with decent production values and is well shot, staged, costumed, and cast. It held my interest throughout, though the love story can get a bit heavy-handed and the number of reveals and plot twists in the last half hour might have been reaching a bit too far. It does service to the Poe source material and builds upon it, encouraging discussion about the difference between treating mental illness and torturing the afflicted in the name of “research.” Music therapy even comes up early on in the film, which is seeing positive effects especially on the elderly and Alzheimer’s patients in today’s nursing homes. Clinically, morally, and ethically, Stonehearst does several things right. Just could have done without all the confusion at the end.

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Mark Buckingham

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