Stonehearst Asylum begins in 1899, the year Sigmund Freud first published The Interpretation of Dreams. The influence of psychoanalysis is yet to be felt on the campus of Oxford University, where the film’s pre-modernist bona fides are established in an introductory scene. A doctor, played by Brendan Gleeson, lectures on hysteria by ushering in Emily Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a “comely” woman of “impeccable breeding” who’s succumbed to the disease. She’s been injected with heroin as a sedative, but still screams, “I am not mad!,” as she’s dragged into the auditorium. When Gleeson approaches and lecherously grabs her, Graves convulses, contradicting her pleas and confirming his diagnosis.
Earlier in that lecture, Gleeson notes that the word hysteria derives from the Greek for “useless,” an adjective that suits Brad Anderson’s persistently inert film pretty well. Based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, Stonehearst Asylum cycles through genres, clichés, and themes without finding a groove among any of them. The film’s overwrought opening, promising a knowing, perhaps lurid treatment of the heinous treatment of the mentally ill at the turn of the century, yields to a significantly more restrained affair.
Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), a recent Oxford graduate, arrives to a residency at Stonehearst, which is under the authority of Superintendent Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). In the manner of all psychiatric wardens, Lamb sees a revolutionary philosophy in his method, which is to allow his patients free reign over the asylum. As Newgate—genial and impotent in the manner of Keanu Reeves’s Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—acquaints himself with this new scientific method, two abrupt developments alter the proceedings. First, he falls instantly in love with Graves, who’s a patient at Stonehearst. Then, he learns that the lunatics are running the asylum, and keep its staff locked up in the basement. Michael Caine plays the true superintendent, and Sinéad Cusack the head nurse—and both are given little to do besides grasping the walls of their characters’ cells, mewling for food and medicine.
In the wake of the ostentatious atmospherics summoned by the likes of Shutter Island and American Horror Story: Asylum, Stonehearst Asylum feels unnecessarily restrained. In 2001’s Session 9, Anderson demonstrated a knack for elevating a deliberately paced chiller with sharp camera work and chilling sound design, but this film is the work of the prestige-television journeyman he’s more recently become. His competence and disinterest in the material seeps through the work of a good cast. They rehash better, more forceful performances as the film fails to unearth any fascination in hysteria and history.
Anderson accepts and exhibits the inherited clichés of the psychological horror film without embracing any of its imagery or intrigue. Specimen jars are flaunted, but remain unopened. Madness is pervasive, but most of Stonehearst Asylum observes lunatics pretending to be normal. Electroshock therapy is a plot device rather than a mental disruption or historical development. When the rebels running the institution ring in a new century, the film should be pointing toward a century where the interior lives of individuals will come to command both art and science. Instead, it’s a quirky backdrop for a narrative that’s become, alternately, an unconvincing romance and a lackluster thriller. Stonehearst Asylum is resoundingly mediocre, but it only grates in its final moments, when a scantly foreshadowed coup de théâtre has the nerve to assume that anyone might want to watch it a second time.