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MOVIE REVIEW: STONEHEARST ASYLUM

 

October 20, 2014

Madness and mayhem are the watchwords of the day when it comes to STONEHEARST ASYLUM. Directed by Brad Anderson from a script by Joe Gangemi based on the 1844 story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather " by Edgar Allan Poe, STONEHEARST ASYLUM abounds with twists and turns set against a richly textured and lush, stylized Victorian-era visual palette. Boasting a cast of Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale, among others, Anderson's genre mash-up touches on everything from Hitchcockian suspense to period drama to bloody horror to romance and even some macabre humor. Although things feel a bit directionally convoluted at times, where Anderson excels is keeping us riveted to the screen with the constant intrigue of this delicious descent into madness.

Setting the stage, we meet "The Alienist", a Victorian-era medical school professor cum surgeon. Typical of the medical thinking of the day, women are dismissed as mere chattel and their illnesses are all diagnosed as "hysteria" with favored treatments being electro-shock therapy and placement in an asylum; after all, "every mad woman insists she's sane" when she really isn't. And as The Alienist demonstrates on a drugged-out and obviously distressed young woman who pleads for sanctuary and help from the observing medical students, in The Alienist's thinking, a grope, jab and fondle of the females also goes a long way.

Meet recent Oxford graduate Edward Newgate. Eager for clinical experience, he arrives at Stonehearst Asylum on Christmas Eve 1899 seeking a residency with Dr. Silas Lamb, director of Stonehearst. Expecting to learn treatment methods of the day, and even possibly some of the more up and coming "cutting edge" theories, Newgate is unprepared for Lamb's methodology. The inmates are running loose in the asylum. No shock treatments, no isolation, no restraints, no medication, the inmates are given free reign with every whim and desire not only met but encouraged. The mix and mingle of the staff and the patients is so loosey-goosey, Newgate has a difficult time distinguishing between the two; except when it comes to Eliza Graves.

Smitten with Eliza from the moment he laid eyes on her, Newgate believes her to be one of the staff and sets out to woo her. Falling even more deeply in love with Eliza as she soothes the savage breast within all at Stonehearst thanks to her classically trained piano concertos, imagine his surprise when he learns that she is, in fact, a patient, put into the asylum by her very brutal and vicious husband. While it is evident that Eliza is quite well, but merely frightened and using Stonehearst as a "sanctuary" from her husband, she feels great responsibility for some of the patients and staff, particularly, the young and naive Millie. But there's something that Eliza isn't telling Edward.

As Edward soon discovers during a stroll through the bowels of the facility, the inmates have taken control of the asylum. Imprisoned in cages in the cavernous dungeon-like basement. amidst filth and feces, Edward discovers Dr. Salt, the real hospital administrator ,along with head nurse Mrs. Pike and the rest of the surviving staff. According to Salt and Mrs. Pike, the "lunatic demon" Lamb, himself at the asylum thanks to a complete psychotic break associated with war crimes and atrocities he committed, has already killed numerous staff and is now plotting to poison the rest. Knowing he must do something to help, but not wanting to leave for fear of never seeing Eliza again, Edward instead tries to gain more information on Lamb, believing he can formulate his own plan for Salt to regain control of Stonehearst.

As the clock counts down to midnight New Year's Eve and the dawn of the 20th Century, can Edward pull off a most daringly conceived plan or will the lunatics prevail. And what of his love for Eliza? But don't get too comfortable and sure of yourselves here because we've got a top in Italy to make thanks to a twist you'll never see coming.

As Edward Newgate, Jim Sturgess steals the heart with a sincerity and kindness. So poignant and beautiful in quiet moments such as those between Edward and an elderly dementia patient awaiting her son, Sturgess elevates the character and story even higher in powerful scenes displaying mental gymnastics opposite Ben Kingsley's Lamb and even moreso in scenes between Edward and Guillaume Delaunay's Arthur; a man suffering with facial and bodily disfigurement. A scene fraught with ferocity and fear is turned into one of tenderness with one word of kindness and Sturgess' facial expressiveness, providing not only powerful moments within the film itself, but great societal commentary.

Kate Beckinsale glides through much of the film with the elegant beauty that is Eliza Graves. But on the turn of a dime, we see the strong, confident, defiant, independence so familiar to all who have seen her in the "Underworld" franchise. Beckinsale will have you riveted to the screen from start to finish. Her physical contortions when in psychological and emotional distress are believably painful to watch while her connection with Sturgess' Edward that spurs Eliza into action and out from under the horrors of physical abuse by Thewlis' Finn showcases the physicality of Beckinsale that we have all come to know, while showing the psychological growth and "cure" that returns Eliza to a fully functioning unafraid woman. There is a lovely chemistry between Beckinsale and Sturgess that you find yourself wanting to see develop as the film progresses. Similarly, Beckinsale and Sophie Kennedy Clarke are enchanting together. And interesting dynamic comes with Kingsley and Beckinsale which plays with an uncertain ambiguity as to who has the upper hand, one element of the film that begs more story development.

When it comes to Dr. Salt, Michael Caine plays him with rapier precision that at times has you wonder if Salt too, has been pushed to the brink of insanity in his belief that he is right in his treatments while also expressing concern and a fight for survival for not only his staff but his former patients now under Lamb's control. Wonderful texture.

Guillaume Delaunay is standout as Arthur, reminding me of Ted Cassidy's Lurch in "The Addams family". Sophie Kennedy Clarke brings a wonderful naivete and innocence as Millie. Notable with Clarke's performance is that director Anderson and cinematographer Yatsko always keep a key light on Clarke adding an ethereal whiteness and purity to her already luminous innocence. With the softness of a lacy gloved hand, this technical and performance meld is a terrific addition to the fabric of the film. As Mrs. Pike, Sinead Cusack make the most of her minimal but significant screentime.

The initial ambiguity of the players bodes well. On meeting Kingsley's Lamb, he feels a bit off kilter while David Thewlis' Mickey Finn and his henchmen belies a professional setting and sets the stage for "pay attention" creepy fun. As Lamb, Kingsley is commanding, at times grandiose, other times clipped and purposeful with dialogue delivery while posture and stance is always precise with a military feel. Describing finding the essence of Lamb, Kingsley opines, "You have to find the character and then imagine what the worst thing you could do to this guy is." Beyond that, as noted, with Lamb the physical presence is essential to the performance which, as Kingsley points out, "There's a way a man carries himself that's vital."

On meeting Brendan Gleeson's Alienist in the lecture hall, Gleeson plays him with an almost guttural superiority, creating the impression of the doctor being a sexual pervert preying on a poor woman as he talks about grabbing her breasts, her pelvis or "the woman part" which it appears he does quite forcefully. Unacceptable by today's standards, you have to check yourself and step back in time to 1899 and remember this was par for the course and considered "medically and academically accepted."

Initially unaware that STONEHEARST ASYLUM was based on a Poe short story, a testament to Brad Anderson's direction is that on Edward's carriage/cart pulling up to the asylum in a steely grey fog, the visual is so meticulous and distinctive, my first thought was, "This should have been written by Poe." Imagine my joy to learn the film does indeed stem from Poe. Black black black Clydesdale or draught horses pulling the cart with ravens flying in the misty grey fog sets the tone for psychological terror. Thrilling is that after setting the stage with this indelible tonal imagery, Anderson didn't disappoint with what comes after.

Screenwriter Joe Gangemi crafts interesting subtext and commentary on the subject of psychiatric treatment of the day - especially when we see the sepia-toned flashbacks of Michael Caine's Salt and his methods of treatment and then hear Mrs. Pike admitting to disagreeing with Salt's methods. This creates a wonderful platform for discussion that develops sympathy and empathy for both sides of the coin - Salt's pursuit of medical discovery with his methods; Lamb's pursuit of his fellow loons being treated as people and their foibles and insanity embraced. It's an interesting debate that still goes on today. To a large extent, the lunatics may not be as looney as we think. Honing in on the moral ambiguity of the story, STONEHEARST ASYLUM walks that line between normalcy and deviance which exists within each of us and begs the question: What is normal or sane? Wonderfully constructed both visually and through dialogue and thematics. A fun little analogy that runs through the film involves the game of chess.

Shortcomings within the story and characterizations include unanswered questions about an aspect of Eliza's character whereby she almost turns to stone from fear, contorting her hands, fingers and face whenever touched by a man, but never does so when Lamb touches her. Similarly, Sophie Kennedy Clarke's Millie and her references to "are they going to make love to us tonight?" compounded by Eliza's constant warnings to "lock the door", have one wondering is there rape in the name of treatment going on either previously by Salt and his staff or by Lamb and the loons who have taken over the asylum.

Visually, Anderson and cinematographer Thomas Yatsko spare nothing when depicting the medical horrors and their collateral damage with luxurious lighting and lensing, hyperstylizing primitive electroshock treatments, rapes, homicidal tendencies and atrocities, bodies burning in fires, just to name a few visual treats. While embracing some of the visual cliches of psychological horror and of the era, Yatsko capitalizes on the distinctive look of the Victorian period. Widescreen lensing enhances the imposing grandeur of the era and the asylum itself, celebrating the richness of dark woods, high ceilings, oversized windows (which allows for creativity with light) and the ornate craftsmanship of the day while creating a claustrophobic aura within the dungeons and even the intricate design of winding hallways juxtapositioned against width and height. We are steeped within the layers of history.

Previously unfamiliar with Yatsko, I am mesmerized by his work in STONEHEARST ASYLUM. Embracing and celebrating the insanity, Yatsko harkens to a look and feel of Litvak's "The Snake Pit" and the cinematography of Leo Tover where key moments spiral into a dizzying frenzy, pulling the audience into the scene, into the experience, into the insanity itself. The heaviness of dark woods and the Hitchcockian "Manderley" architecture found in "Rebecca", tells its own story. Shadows play strongly with theme and add some great texture on the woods and in the corners. Where Yatsko really captures a psychotic visual palette are with the catacomb jails of STONEHEARST ASYLUM and the dark flickering golden umbers of back light and shadow on the stones, making emotional use of the negative space behind the jailed staff members for that "what's lurking back there" sense. The climactic sequence of Kingsley's Lamb and his memories, dazzle with a sharp infusion of saturated color - red appears for the first time in the film - and not just any red - but fire engine red. VFX take hold with the immersion into Lamb's memories and the point where he snapped. Stunning. Powerful. Emotionally terrifying. Even the flames of the courtyard fire and building had the red pulled from them and appear with a more yellowed-brown tinged look. It's an interesting effect that captivates. But as if the overall visuals aren't enough, Yatsko and Anderson go even deeper with screaming metaphor, honing in on the reflections created in each lens of the glasses worn by Sturgess' Edward. Stunning work.

With a final twist to the film, visuals go through a complete tonal shift from the dark woods, shadows, burgundies and negative space to open windows, bright light, sunlit interiors, light colored clothing. A true visual and emotional metamorphosis that is freeing, uplifting..

And then there's John Debney's score. Lush, rich, textured. The score itself and the orchestration is a perfect metaphor to the overall visual and emotional tonal bandwidth. As Kingsley's Dr. Lamb or Thewlis' Mickey Finn get more crazed, music not only intensifies in its tempo and volume, but the Hitchcockian violin ferocity takes hold and you find yourself on the edge of your seat or biting your fist. On the flip side is the softer, more languid classical pieces that Beckinsale's Eliza Graves plays...... music soothes the savage breast. One of the most luscious and perfectly balanced scores of the year in terms of its appropriateness to the film and as being an integral and significant part of the film's tonal bandwidth.

Sometimes it's good to go a little crazy. STONEHEARST ASYLUM is ones of those times. It's always a lot more fun when the inmates are running the asylum.

Directed by Brad Anderson

Written by Joe Gangemi, based on the 1844 story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather " by Edgar Allan Poe

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Michael Caine, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Sophie Kennedy Clarke

 

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