“The satisfaction of helping those in hell.
See, of all the afflictions, I can think of none more, more cruel than madness, sir.
See, it robs a man of his reason, his dignity, his very soul.
And it does so, so slowly, without the remorse of death.”
Can you remember Ben Kingsley in “Shutter Island” as head of a psychiatric institution dressed up in a white overcoat ? In “Stone Hearst Asylum” he took that white overcoat back out of the closet and while smoking a pipe with a pensive look, he’s extensively lecturing about the revolutionary method he applies at psychiatric patients. It’s a movie based on the short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” from 1845, written by the supreme master of horror stories, Edgar Allan Poe. This master of the sinister and macabre, who used the dark depths of the human soul and primal fears as a foundation, situated this story in the south of France in those days. An institution used an unconventional way to treat internees. Instead of locking them up, they allowed patients to empathize with their delusions and their madness.
The whole story is relocated to Britain in the Victorian era. In that time psychiatry still used inhumane methods such as bloodletting, rotational therapies and outright torture by use of electrocution or near-drowning. It’s in this period that Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the quite spooky looking and secluded Stone Hearst Asylum. A Victorian building that easily could be used as background for an old horror movie and resembles Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. Newgate wants to gain clinical experience in this institution. A tour of Dr. Lamb shows that the psychiatric treatments used look pretty bizarre. Soon however, he’s warned by Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a gifted pianist who looks absolutely beautiful and immediately arouses Newgate’s curiosity. She urges him to leave Stonehearst as soon as possible.
And then we’re off for an old-fashioned detective thriller where Newgate is trying to figure out what hidden secrets there are within the walls. A costume film with lots of candlelight and draughty corridors and dungeons. A sad fact is that very early in the film the greatest secret is revealed, so the tension actually gets badly mauled. It’s not a real nail-biter anymore afterwards and eventually it evolves into a dated suspense film with a touch of romance, a spark of excitement and a bit of comedy. Nicely designed though, but at the same time as gruesome as an episode of Sesame Street. However, the final denouement was still Poe worthy and fairly surprising.
Brad Anderson can be highly thankful for getting together such a star cast for this movie. Celebrities like Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine are not just any actors. Unfortunately Caine’s contribution is fairly limited. That’s because of the circumstances in which he finds himself and afterwards because of his mental state. Kingsley can indulge himself in his role as the fairly unstable and unpredictable Dr.Lamb. A role with emotions swinging back and forth like an old fashioned pendulum clock. But the most I enjoyed the character Mickey Finn, played by David Thewlis (Better known as Remus Lupin from Harry Potter). A fairly disturbed figure with murderous thoughts. Kate Beckinsale provides the visual delight with her beautiful appearance. Although she’s actually the most normal looking person among all the other crazy characters, I always felt like watching at Keira Knightley in “A dangerous method”. An expressive facial expression accompanied by a lot of sighs and groans. Jim Sturgess was predominantly in the picture, but actually didn’t make an overwhelming impression.
In the end it wasn’t an earth-shattering movie. Amusing yes. And there are worse ways to spend your time. What stays with you are the odd personages who roam through the corridors of this institution: the man who thinks he’s a horse and only meekly follows orders when he’s being threatened that his next comb-over will be skipped, the nymphomaniac nurse and the Frankenstein-like wild man locked in a dungeon. The wise words told to aspiring psychologists at the beginning “Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”, is indeed applicable to this film, because there are some whoppers of story twists in the end. Final tip : don’t watch any trailer, because they give away too much !