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Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

Millennium Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 12/16/2014

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/8/2014

Most film directors spend their careers working within the same genre or navigating similar ideas and themes in their films. There are a handful who move around and touch on various subjects, such as the late Mike Nichols, but most filmmakers exist within a specific framework. What we don't see as often is a director tackling comparable topics from different angles. In 2001, Director Brad Anderson garnered attention for his film Session 9, a modern-day tale of a group of men having odd experiences at an abandoned mental hospital. His latest film, Stonehearst Asylum takes Anderson back to a psychiatric facility, but this time, the action is taking place over 100 years ago.

It's December, 1899, and Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) has traveled from Oxford to Stonehearst Asylum, a looming gothic hospital located in the middle of nowhere, to complete his training as an Alienist (a now defunct term for psychiatrist). Upon arrival, he is met by the brusque foreman Finn (David Thewlis) and then introduced to Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), the superintendent of the facility. Dr. Lamb is a proponent of a new form of therapy in which the patients are allowed more freedom to move about and they arenít kept sedated. Newgate meets Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a patient who suffers from hysteria -- a blanket diagnosis given to women, especially those who were the least bit rebellious -- and heís immediately taken with her. As Newgate attempts to settle in, he canít help but notice that, aside from Dr. Lambís radical ideals, something doesnít seem quite right. He will soon learn that Stonehearst Asylum holds many secrets.

This is one of those movies which I feel that I must describe carefully, so as not to give away any plot twists. Although, the poster for the movie is doing fine on its own in that department. Stonehearst Asylum is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe entitled The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, a tale which no doubt created a term which we use liberally today to describe a situation which is out of control. Poe had some knowledge of the mental health care of his time, and apparently the story commented on this. Likewise, Stonehearst Asylum has some elements of a moral debate, as the film takes place in a time when the accepted practices used on those with psychiatric diagnoses bordered on being barbaric torture.

Screenwriter Joe Gangemi has taken Poeís story and used it as a taking off point for a larger script. (From what I can tell, the original short story is encapsulated in the first 40 minutes or so of the film.) Therefore, it may be surprising to some that the big plot twist from that story is given away relatively quickly in the film. However, this twist wonít be surprising at all to diligent viewers. Even those who havenít seen the poster will immediately grasp that something is wrong at Stonehearst and that something is fairly easy to figure out.

And therein lies the meat of why this film, which has an impressive cast and production design, ultimately fails. The pacing of the movie is completely out of whack. Gangemiís script drops a bombshell at the end of the first act and then nothing else of interest happens until the finale. My wife bailed out of the movie at the 57-minute point, when she learned that there was another 55-minutes to go. Given what had transpired, she assumed that the movie was about to enter the home stretch. But, Gangemi and Anderson has decided to prolong the story and this leaves us with many repetitive scenes and a growing sense of impatience as we wonder why Newgate wonít do something about his situation. He learns the truth what is going on very early in the film and fails to confront it head-on. Some will say that the twist ending explains his inaction, but A) Iím not buying it, and B) Even if it does, itís not worth waiting around for. Stonehearst Asylum takes some familiar faces, some interesting ideas about medical ethics, and two plot twists and squanders them on a movie which is needlessly long and boring. This is made even more unfortunate given the fact that if the story had been better constructed and the detritus has been jettisoned, the plot twists would have actually worked and this could have been a satisfying throwback to the Hammer films which relished the gothic feel of the 19th century.

Stonehearst Asylum is a film based almost entirely on a term which has become a cliche on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Millennium Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 18 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no distracting grain and no defects from the source materials. This is a very dark movie, and the picture is somewhat too dark at times, but the action is always visible. Along with that dark look, we donít get many bright colors, but the tones do look realistic. The level of detail is good, although I did spot some shots which looked a bit soft and the depth is about what we would expect from a Blu-ray Disc. The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, as they pinpoint some sounds occurring off-screen, and the surround effects come to life during the action sequences, specifically the finale. However, I found the subwoofer effects to be a bit flat.

The Stonehearst Asylum contains only one extra. The "'Making of' Featurette" (6 minutes) is entitled "Stonehearst Asylum: The Story of Eliza Graves". Here, we get comments from Anderson, Screenwriter Joe Gangemi, Sturgess, Beckinsale, Kingsley, and Caine, all of whom discuss the story and the themes. Gangemi touches on the origin of the screenplay, but we only hear from him for a moment.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long