If “Stonehearst Asylum” was attempting to make its audience feel insane, then bravo! The film succeeded in forcing anyone watching to follow its circuitous, self–rectifying plot, and to strain to make sense of a literary–based thriller that lacks both the suspense of its genre and the thematic significance of its Edgar Allan Poe–penned source material. This intention may not be far off for director Brad Anderson. “Stoneheast Asylum” references so many insanity tropes (a character even utters those omnipresent words: “The lunatics are running the asylum!”) that it insists upon its own originality.
This film begins innocuously enough with Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) playing the role of the confused and mortified everyman. Newgate, fresh out of Oxford Medical School, comes to Stonehearst on Christmas Eve of 1899. Life at this bizarre asylum seems to be almost a caricature of itself. Superintendent Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) chooses to feed his patients’ delusions rather than abide by strict psychiatrics. Dinner entrees include a squirrel and horse. The patients mix with the staff enough to make Newgate (and the viewer) struggle to tell them apart.
Before long, we learn the obvious secret: Lamb and his associates have overthrown the previous asylum staff, including the real superintendent Ben Salt (Michael Caine), imprisoning them in a dungeon–like series of cells. Newgate enlists Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a patient who appears to be normal but suffers from hysteria, to help upend Lamb’s oppressive experiment.
Anderson’s direction leads “Stonehearst Asylum” to somewhere between a romance, a thriller and a fable. When jump scares occur in the film, they feel almost out of place. Equally strange are Sturgess and Beckinsale’s romantic scenes, where the obvious lack of chemistry actually made me uncomfortable. “I’m not sane, I’m madly in love with you,” Newgate tells Eliza. "We can leave from here together," Newgate promises, “To a place where the sky is always blue.”
I felt like I had to shut my brain off to make the film’s contradictions and plot intricacies make sense. Near the end of the film, two characters engage in a protracted fight. One character shoots the other character from point–blank range and then crushes him under a cascade of rocks. Somehow, the latter character survives this ordeal. How? Is he secretly Kenny from “South Park?”
For a film with such a star–studded cast, "Stonehearst Asylum" is hardly more than a sad rip-off of “Shutter Island” and “American Horror Story: Asylum.” Philosophical questions about the nature of insanity get lip service, but prove secondary to the twisty, bizarre third act. Anyone who sees this film will undoubtedly fixate on the plot twist revealed in the film’s final moments. Plot twists work best when their revelation clarifies earlier ambiguities and make sense given earlier character details and actions. The ending revelation of “Stonehearst Asylum” resolves no plot holes and essentially erases the film of any thematic intention.
Caught between a downtrodden thriller and a melodramatic period piece, “Stonehearst Asylum” is respectable—but like Newgate—ultimately confusing and unlikable.