Stonehurst Asylum

 

For a little while back there is seemed as though Kate Beckinsale had done something to upset her agent. Between 2001 and 2004 she was in a run of really dire films; projects that looked good on paper, like Pearl Harbour, Underworld and Van Helsing but turned out to be cheesy underwritten dross. In fact it was as though casting Beckinsale in your film jinxed it in some way. 
Since then things haven’t been so bad, The Aviator was a great film and I actually really liked Underworld: Evolution, but she’s never quite got over that early cursed patch. Her filmography is punctuated with good performances in mediocre movies (e.g Total Recall) and it seems like she never got the big chance and the big films she was heading for. It’s as though someone stole her career. Naomi Watts maybe. 
Stonehurst Asylum continues the trend. It’s a diverting film and she is joined in the cast by Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine but it could have been so much better. 
The film is loosely based on, or perhaps it is better to say inspired by, the Edgar Allen Poe short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather. In its written form the tale centres around a 19th Century European mental institution where the patients fight back against the barbaric treatments they are subjected to. They take over the hospital and practice their own form of ‘medicine’ on the doctors. When published the story was quite political, criticising the then accepted practises in the care of the mentally ill. Stonehurst Asylum keeps what was then the pretty original idea of the lunatics taking over the nuthouse but looses the edge and the film is an entertaining but ripe melodrama. Any movie that contains the line ‘I’m not sane, I’m madly in love with you.’ is not one you can take seriously but is one you can have fun with. I’m actually not quite sure what tone the film makers were going for but that’s okay because, evidentially, neither were they. It veers from broad comedy to brutal tragedy.
Beckinsale plays impossibly elegant and beautiful patient Eliza Graves and Jim Sturgess is the young doctor obsessed by her. Their relationship seems odd and unconvincing but the plot allows for that; when at least one of your protagonists is disturbed and socially awkward it gives you a free pass on realistic characterisation.
It is clear while you are watching the film that everything is not as it seems and while the twists are not particularly surprising you are curious enough about how things will play out. Sturgess and Beckinsale are going for anguished and earnest most of the time but the supporting players are having a great time. It is easy to look at high profile performers such as Kingsley and Caine think they are slumming it in films like this but it must be fun to ham it up with such abandon. Ben Kingsley, in particular, seems to have spent the years post Schindler essaying these kinds of character parts but to be fair, neither man has ever backed away from taking roles for the money. Kingsley needs to go the next step now and move properly into comedy. Iron Man 3 showed he is ready.
As a gothic melodrama with a fragile female lead Stonehurst Asylum sets itself up against classic films such as Gaslight and Rebecca and as a mental institution picture it offers comparisons to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shutter Island, 12 Monkeys and Girl Interrupted. It isn’t as good as any of those films but it is a perfectly enjoyable two hours. For what it’s worth it’s better than Zac Snyder’s similarly themed but ridiculously overblown Sucker Punch. 
I’ll give Stonehurst Asylum a tentative recommendation. I wouldn’t insist that you see it at the cinema but that’s okay because nor it seems would the distributors. It was released a week ago against the cinematic behemoth Avengers: Age of Ultron which either shows incredible confidence in the film or a total lack of it. Since it is simultaneously available for home download I would suggest it is the latter. 
Is this one for the kids?
One of things guaranteed to tip the rating North of a 12A is images of torture and sure enough, Stonehurst Asylum, with its scenes of archaic and barbaric medical procedures, is rated 15. There is some violence outside of the treatment rooms too.
The Ripley Factor?
 
At first glance this film does not come across as a great feminist story. Eliza Graves does gain strength throughout the narrative and her actions move events forward but ultimately she needs rescuing by a man. This sister is not doing it for herself. 
Significantly though her medical condition is classed as hysteria; the bogus and chauvinistic diagnosis that belittled and oppressed women for over a hundred years. Across this period of history, as in the film, doctors used this as a reason to sexually abuse and demean female patients in the name of curing what was often just the after effects of previous attacks. In condemning these practices Stonehurst Asylum does make an important feminist statement even if it isn’t one that’s as socially relevant as it was a century ago.

  

 

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