Oxford University, 1899, and The Alienist (Gleeson) is conducting a lecture on hysteria for his medical students. The patient is brought in – Eliza Graves (Beckinsale) and has supposedly been in his care for a number of years. She begs the students to help her, scared, claiming not to be mad (as mad people usually do in films like this, I suppose?) But, there’s clearly something wrong with her. Is she mad, or is The Alienist (an old term for psychiatrist or psychologist specializing in asylum medicine) covering something up? Thus begins “Stonehearst Asylum”, a lush looking, higher budget, inoffensive would-be horror yarn in the Gothic mode aimed at audiences who like films like “The Woman in Black” or stories such as the work of Henry James or MR James. This particular film is based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (although for some reason the filmmakers only credit “based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe”).
REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS:
Edward Newgate (Sturgiss) is on his way to complete his training as an alienist at Stonehearst Asylum, arriving at the foggy, beautifully shot (by Thomas Yatsko) rurally isolated, old asylum in time for Christmas Eve (not exactly the usual way to spend the yuletide season for most people). The asylum genuinely looks like the kind of place you’d never want to end up in, the archetypal image of English Victorian grimness.
Stonehearst is home to many patients, including relatives of royalty, the rich and famous, all from the finest families in Europe: a “madhouse in the wilderness”. Newgate had written to inform the administrators of his arrival, but nobody seems to have received his letter? He meets the chief doctor Silus Lamb (Kingsley) who is welcoming and explains the work being done at Stonehearst. Newgate is a man committed to work helping those who have been afflicted by madness, a condition that “robs a man of his very soul”. He’s a good man and sincere in his beliefs (nicely played by Sturgiss). The patients are socially embarrassing to their families, now locked away, out of sight and out of mind. This is not a place that seeks cures, but also does not sedate the patients into a zombie-like existence. It all seems very idealistic, unconventional and unlike any asylum Newgate has seen before. Here he sees the patient Lady Eliza Graves: beautiful, music loving, and subject to hysteria: a victim of an abusive husband who ceaselessly demands her return so that he can continue to subject her to his depraved ways. Newgate is immediately attracted to her, and Eliza increasingly to him in this curious place where patients and staff mingle together rather than the norm of separation.
But, all is very much not as it appears and Newgate will soon come to realise exactly what kind of a place he has inadvertently found himself in as Eliza warns him to leave immediately, and the truth of Stonehearst is revealed, with Newgate now forced to play the part of hero seeking a solution. But, who is really who?
“Stonehearst Asylum” begins well, full of dryly black humour and is easy viewing, the type of film you’d happily watch on a Sunday evening with family members in the safe knowledge that there’s no gore and it’s a scare free experience. The major plot reveal comes early, removing any real surprises from the story, opting for entertainment rather than terror. For a nastier version of basically the same story, check out the 1972 Amicus film “Asylum”, which leaves its effective reveal right until the end.
“Stonehearst Asylum” is well played by a quality cast (especially Sturgiss and Beckinsale) and is pleasant enough, although it descends into an adventure with a love story thrown in for good measure and a supposed twist that seems more like a last throw of the dice to reward you for watching. It’s based on Poe, yet lacks all of his sense of a dark world without redemption.
An entertaining enough period-piece that is nice to look at.