Six months ago, an alienist (Brendan Gleeson) at Oxford, that was a doctor who specialised in treating mental illnesses, was giving a lecture to his students and brought in a woman who had been suffering from hysteria. She was called Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), and had been incarcerated in an asylum for attacking her husband, but as she sits in the lecture hall she becomes more animated, calling out to the assembled that she is not mad at all, and is actually sane. The students see this as more evidence of her insanity, trusting the alienist's assessment, and after making note of her condition, she is wheeled out and the next subject is wheeled in. Which brings us to now, in 1899, and the Stonehearst Asylum where she stays...
This was one of the highest profile films from an Edgar Allan Poe story after a long while when his work was raided by low budget filmmakers seeking something in the public domain they could base their work in, however loosely, and it had to be said even here the text was pretty much abandoned after the first half hour. So confident were the production that they could improve on the Poe tale for cinematic purposes that they gave away the original twist within about half an hour, and even then heavily signposted there was something not quite right about the institution of the title for the whole of that time, which would have been fine if they conjured up something more substantial afterwards.
This was leading up to another twist devised by screenwriter Joe Gangemi which may have been more cheery than Poe fans would be used to, but was a disappointing way of wrapping things up. There were hints that we were supposed to regard this as a bit of a giggle, and the movie could have done with more of them since as a study of mental health it was flimsy to say the least, and something more akin to the treatment of the subject in the Amicus favourite Asylum from around forty years before would have offered more entertainment, for whenever you thought this was going to go all out with its lunatic milieu it reined itself in with a more reserved love story between Eliza and the new boy at Stonehearst, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess).
He shows up on Christmas Eve to be greeted by the resident handyman Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), a sinister type where the actor barely restrains himself from smacking his lips in his wickedness for the duration of his performance, as if we were not already alerted that there was more going on than we were privy to. Then Edward is introduced to the head of the establishment, Dr Silas Lamb, played by Ben Kingsley with a welcome twinkle in his eye, who makes it clear early on that his ideas of treating the illnesses under his care have nothing to do with making them well, as cure has no place here, it's all about making the patients comfortable and if that means encouraging their delusions then so be it, especially as many have been locked up for reasons other than madness.
This would be a fertile ground for the film to cover, that it was difficult to tell who was trapped in the system for genuine madness and who was there simply because they were a nonconformist, but aside from Eliza's plight they didn't come across as too interested in that, preferring the old "lunatics are taking over the asylum" conventions that too many horror movies set in one fell back on. There was a lack of much to get your teeth into here, as it meandered after the storyline's first big giveaway so that it was really only some nice acting that buoyed an increasingly indifferent experience: Michael Caine appeared in a supporting role as a reluctant inmate, and you wish he had more verbal sparring with Kingsley, two thespian Knights a little restrained by a film that was neither one thing nor the other. Elsewhere, Jason Flemyng and Sinéad Cusack were likewise keen to get away, though Sophie Kennedy Clark gave a good account of herself as the nurse who may be off her rocker herself. Stonehearst Asylum was an easy, untaxing watch, but an air of missed opportunities reigned. Music by John Debney.
American writer and director who made the comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents, before scoring a cult hit in 2001 with the horror Session 9. The similarly spooky The Machinist and solid Hitchcockian thriller Transsiberian followed before television took up most of his time.