Poor Edgar Allan Poe. The man is arguably our greatest literary treasure, but he sure does get hijacked sometimes for atmospheric purposes. His name adds legitimacy to projects and his works are in public domain, so it’s seen as a win-win for everyone, except maybe Poe, whose tense and psychological tales are often poorly exploited. Not so in “Stonehearst Asylum.”
On the surface, “Stonehearst Asylum” is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” a brilliant piece of black comedy. While it would have been possible for a fine thriller to come out of that story, director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi have used it as a springboard for a critical meditation on the nature of sanity.
Fresh from Victorian Oxford, Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at remote Stonehearst Asylum to gain experience under the eye of the facility’s head doctor, Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Newgate also seems interested in comely patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). We eventually learn why, but to anyone who sees her in a corset partway through the picture, it should be fairly obvious. In a move that shouldn’t surprise any genre fan–whether they’ve read the Poe original or not–Newgate discovers Stonehearst is being run by its mad. Lamb is a former army surgeon, imprisoned for a gruesome killing, and his staff is a collection of madmen and murderers.
“Stonehearst Asylum” is worth watching for many things. It sports clean photography and a cast of veteran British actors. It also opts for atmosphere over jump scares, which is laudable in itself. But it is how the character of Lamb is handled that gives the film its most interesting element.
Lamb is a savior of the insane. His name symbolically links him to the character of Christ. The people in his charge are social undesirables of the highest order. “You will find most of our patients are here because they are embarrassments to their families, outcasts,” Lamb says to Newgate during his initial tour of the asylum. The tour is a pivotal scene not only because it introduces us to Lamb, but also because it introduces us to the asylum. Anderson resists the urge to shoot the asylum like a character, opting instead to shoot it like a piece of landscape. Long hallways and tall staircases are used to create a sense of space and depth. Lamb is carefully singled out in these introductory shots, a white lab coat in a sea of darker costumes. He moves toward the camera, stopping when he reaches a prominent position in the frame. The distinction is clear: Stonehearst is a piece of property, Lamb’s kingdom.
In a making-of featurette, Anderson describes Lamb’s vision of Stonehearst as an elaborate, admirable utopia. Gangemi calls the asylum an upside-down world. They’re apt descriptions. Like an out of control R. D. Lang, Lamb believes that the socially accepted and understood notions of psychological health are constraining. “We’re all mad,” he quips to Newgate. “Some are simply not mad enough to admit it.” Lamb’s philosophy is completely contrary to that of Dr. Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), the previous head of Stonehearst Asylum. Salt says that the mad must be broken like animals to be made men again; Lamb asks why cure someone who thinks they’re an animal and make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse.
Lamb refers to his Stonehearst as a “grand experiment,” one where both the roles and the conception of sane and insane are flipped. In one of the more thrilling moments of the film, an escaped orderly flings himself off a cliff rather than be caught by Lamb’s thug. In normal society, madmen commit suicide, but in Lamb’s kingdom of the mad, it is the sane who kill themselves. Either way, it is the surrounding culture that decides what is psychologically wrong (“Suicidal tendencies are not uncommon among the seriously deranged,” Lamb notes when the death is brought to his attention).
A more balanced version of this utopia is hinted at by the end of the film, in which the “mad” and the “sane” work together based on ability rather than social conception. It’s a more stable union than Lamb could have envisioned. But before it can happen, the original experiment–and its Lamb–must be sacrificed. In a key scene, Graves confronts Lamb about the death of a patient, Millie (Sophie Kennedy Clark). Millie had been improving, and Graves initially praised the progress under Lamb. That praise vanishes when another patient kills Millie. Lamb tries to comfort Graves, telling her that Millie is in a better place. “No,” Graves responds. “This was supposed to be a better place.” It is only when Lamb is shocked out of his ownership of Stonehearst–Kingsley returns Lamb to the military swagger he had before he became the asylum head–that the experiment is over and a truly better place can be made.