Stonehearst Asylum takes place at a turn of the century looney bin, where everybody seems to be off their rocker – especially the ones running the show. It’s the latest film from Brad Anderson, a talented guy who’s shown skill in the past handling deeply atmospheric thrillers like Session 9 and Transsiberian. Here his hand is surprisingly uneven as the film teeters between campy melodrama and dark chiller without ever really settling in to a singular tone. Not helping is the fact that writer Joseph Gangemu loosely adapts Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” padding it out to its bursting point, making a two hour movie feel like four.
Jim Sturgess (Heartless) plays Edward Newgate, a recently graduated doctor who takes an assistant position at a secluded nuthouse, nestled in the foggy bosom of the English countryside. The superintendent of the asylum is Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley at his most stately), who lords over the patients with a seemingly gentle touch – allowing them to roam freely about the grounds, even dining with them. The patients themselves are a special lot. Most of them come from well-to-do families and have been committed for “maladies” like homosexuality and epilepsy.
One patient in particular grabs Newgate’s attention: Eliza Graves (Kate Beckingsale), a proper Victorian woman whose husband had her taken away to the funny farm to quell her sinful desires. Newgate’s first hint that something is amiss at Stonehearst comes the first night, when Eliza warns him to flee before Silas can spot him slipping away. He dismisses her warnings (she is crazy after all, right?) and as Newgate digs further into the secrets of the asylum, he uncovers a conspiracy that involves Michael Caine locked up in the basement – never a good sign.
But even Michael Caine can’t seem to figure out what kind of movie he’s in. The usually spot-on actor gives a stifled performance, as does nearly everyone else except Kingsley, who maintains a menacing persona throughout. Regardless of his great work in the film, it’s this see-sawing between melodrama and chiller that makes Stonehearst Asylum feel like a schizo film unsure what it’s trying to be. The atmosphere is fantastic, no doubt about that. It’s established early on and Anderson does a great job preserving it, but hot damn the story drags like a donkey with Lou Ferrigno on its back. Newgate uncovers the asylum’s dirty secret fairly early on, but the ball doesn’t really get rolling for a at least another 30 minutes. It’s not even padded out with anything particularly interesting. I’m all for a slow-burn as long as the fuse is burning along a compelling plotline.
I really like Brad Anderson’s films (hell, I even dug The Call), so Stonehearst Asylum is a painful disappointment. It could’ve benefited from some tighter editing and a stronger focus on tone. The performances are solid enough to give the movie a one-view pass, but ultimately it’s a forgettable film.