Every so often a film comes along that defies the usual categorizations. Horror, historical drama, comedy, romance, and mystery come together in such a way that leaves you unable to say that this film is one or all of these things. The best you can do is turn to the friend, significant other, or colleague and say, “I saw this amazing movie tonight.” Such is the case with Stonehearst Asylum, releasing October 24 in a limited theater run in the US and on DVD and Blu Ray December 16, 2014.
Screenwriter Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill) skillfully adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and director Brad Anderson (The Call, Session 9) brought together a brilliant cast that gives us a glimpse into the treatment of mental illness in the late 19th century. It was a dark time if you suffered from depression or schizophrenia, and one of the main reasons that Poe chose this subject matter was all the controversy that surrounded it. For starters, they had no names and little understanding of these diseases at the time. Remember, we were less than a century from a time when people were more likely to be subjected to exorcisms than doctors when they presented extreme symptoms of mental illness, and even in the more enlightened age, treatments were often barbaric and in most cases would be classified as abuse rather than medicine today.
Young Doctor Newgate (Jim Sturgess) is seeking to complete his medial training as an alienist, a doctor for the mentally ill, at Stonehearst Asylum. He arrives on Christmas Eve and is met at the gate by Mickey Finn (David Thewlis), the groundskeeper. Mr. Finn brings the young doctor up to the office of Doctor Lamb (Ben Kingsley), the superintendent at Stonehearst. Did I mention it’s a brilliant cast? We’ve only just begun! As they make their rounds the next day, Newgate spies a young, beautiful woman playing the piano. Her name is Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) and she is a patient suffering from bouts of hysteria. Normally, a female hysteria patient would be subjected to various physical treatments, not the least of which would be stimulation of the sex organs to bring about orgasm and emotional relief. Under Doctor Lamb’s new methods, however, she is given free rein to play the piano and move about unfettered in order to work off her excess amount of emotional energy.
In fact, none of the patients at Stonehearst seem to be subjected to the harsher treatments of the time. Doctor Lamb tells the younger doctor to use his eyes and observe the patient. By observing, he will be able to see to the root of the patient’s problem and make a correct diagnosis and course of treatment. Little things begin to not add up for Doctor Newgate. Treatments, protocols, something is just not right. Late one night, he hears a noise and follows it down into the cellars of the asylum. There he finds a group of inmates, held captive in cells. The spokesman for this group (Michael Caine) tells Newgate that he is Doctor Salt and the rightful superintendent of Stonehearst Asylum. Not only that, but his fellow prisoners are all the true staff of the asylum. And that, readers, is where the fun really begins.
I sat through the rest of the film on the edge of my seat as we took each twist and turn with Doctor Newgate while he did his best to sort fact from fiction and sane from insane. The film delves deeply into the questions of what should really classify as sanity and the stigma that is often associated with insanity. Are we really treating anyone by keeping them locked away behind bars? Is exercise and interaction with other people just as effective as treatment by medications, electroconvulsive therapy, and forcing a patient to relive their most emotionally scarring moments? And perhaps, most importantly, what truly defines who is sane and who is insane? How thin is that line?
If these questions intrigue you, I urge you to check out Stonehearst Asylum.