With a title like Stonehearst Asylum and the spooky-looking poster promoting it, you might be inclined to think that this movie would be another horror film out just in time for Halloween, but you would be wrong. You won’t find any creepy dead girls climbing out of wells to steal your soul or people who can walk through metal bars. Mostly. Stonehearst is actually a thriller or adventure story with some uncomfortable undertones.
The movie is loosely based on the short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is considered a dark comedy. While this version is not a comedy, it isn’t a horror film either, but is fitting for the season.
The story opens on Christmas Eve in 1899. Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) has just arrived at Stonehearst Mental Asylum to begin an apprenticeship with Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Edward is lead around the facility and meets different staff members and some of the patients including Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful woman who has an aversion to intimacy. We’re not talking about someone who becomes uncomfortable when someone invades her personal space. No, she becomes almost violent whenever someone touches her.
Edward learns that Dr. Lamb’s methods are not the same as traditional therapy and the older “medieval” practices by Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) had only been abandoned a short time earlier. Patients now are allowed to roam about the facility unmediated. Doctors and nurses care for the patients by allowing them to act out their odd actions as long as they don’t harm themselves or others. Already, you know that the good doctor is in trouble and Edward senses that not everything is on the up and up. However, even with Eliza telling Edward that he doesn’t “belong” there, he stubbornly stays and seeks to find the truth.
Stonehearst differs from the Poe story in many ways, but the basic theme and setting is the same and actually improves the plot. While some will disagree, this film is a good example of good story-telling. It’s not complicated. What appears to be black and white at first is actually a lot grayer in color. The story will make you wonder who the “good” guys are and who the “bad” are and are the methods used to cure the insane worse than the diagnosis? Which is worse – to be sane and miserable or insane and happy? The movie even features a twist in the end for good measure.
All of the actors are especially good in their roles, but this is Ben Kingsley’s movie. Much like his role in the Ironman 3 movie, he chews up every scene that he is in. The film does have a few “cheesy” moments of dialogue between Edward and Eliza, but that can be easily overlooked as it doesn’t ruin the story.
Stonehearst is an old-fashioned tale where you will wonder how the hero will save the day. It is rated PG-13 for disturbing and violent images, sexual content and language, but those are fairly minor and don’t interrupt the story. Some viewers will no doubt be disappointed with the picture expecting it to be a lot scarier than it is. Just run with it. You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you do.