Review: Stonehearst Asylum

Mike McCahill

A young doctor arrives at a remote institution and finds little difference between staff and patients in this cracking Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.

The American Brad Anderson has emerged since the millennium as one of the smartest genre filmmakers around: he’s made disconcerting horror freakouts (2001’s Session 9, 2004’s The Machinist) and nifty, crafty thrillers (2008’s Transsiberian, 2013’s The Call), all the while overseeing some of America’s classiest television (The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire). With Stonehearst Asylum, he lands some of his best source material yet: a Joe Gangemi script that riffs most enjoyably on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.

In the last days of the 19th century, head-in-clouds Oxford medical graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the titular institution with an eye to learning his trade. The household he enters divides firmly along Downton lines. Upstairs, Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) pursues a decidedly progressive methodology, encouraging inmates to run wild; downstairs, however, there lurk various caged and dirty unfortunates – including one Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine) – who claim to have been the asylum’s original staff, overthrown by crazy fake-MD Lamb during a violent regime change.

As Newgate weighs each side’s claims, Anderson sends on lunatics from all points on the British and Irish acting spectrum. Brendan Gleeson cameos as a lecturer who establishes the heartless rottenness of Establishment thinking; David Thewlis plays the leering Irish gatekeeper Mickey Finn; while Kate Beckinsale is the so-called hysteric Eliza Graves, to whom our hero takes a particular shine. There’s brief release as a couple of escapees are pursued to their doom, but mostly we're on lockdown with these oddballs as a harsh winter draws in and all certainties are overturned.

Blessed with a budget that does full justice to Poe’s cruel and unusual punishments, the result is more expansive than claustrophobic, carefully extracting and brushing down the story’s themes. If the Eliza-Edward romance tends towards the wan, the Salt-Lamb struggle amply compensates: this may be Kingsley’s most substantial role since 2000’s Sexy Beast – or at least the role that makes best use of the latent madness in the actor’s eyes. If you like your horror movies literary, and more restrained than overwrought, have at it: it’s a cracking story, told with appreciable wit and skill.