Movie Review: ‘Stonehearst Asylum’ Doesn’t Do Poe Justice

Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe” … no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy-turn-of-the-20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel. It recalls the “B” movie feel of so many from the 40’s and 50’s that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably gives this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast – also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack – it doesn’t manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.
Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted during these pre-psychoanalysis days. Things would soon begin to change through the works of Freud and others. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane character in this film. Loosely based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, what the film lacks in tension and terror, it almost makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

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