A fine cast led by Ben Kingsley and Kate Beckinsale deliver in this Victorian thriller
A young doctor in Victorian England arrives at a remote asylum seeking medical training, discovering a shocking revelation inside its walls that threaten his life. Headed by Ben Kingsley, Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess and Michael Caine, the period flick is an interesting adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. Stonehearst Asylum is a confident genre film elevated by Ben Kingsley’s best performance in years, capably directed by Brad Anderson. Anderson is mostly known for such hidden gems as The Machinist and Transibberian, extracting compelling performances from his star leads in twisting scripts.
A newly-minted doctor fresh out of Oxford, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) seeks an apprenticeship as an alienist at the foreboding Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum. The remote asylum is run by the unconventional Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Stonehearst is an asylum holding 200 patients from the richest citizens in Victorian England, hidden away to prevent shame on their families. An alienist is an archaic term for a psychiatrist or psychologist. Most mentally-ill patients were locked away within asylums in the Nineteenth Century, removed from society. The film does tangentially address those issues through its themes and characters, without dwelling on them. It lightly comments on those antiquated medical practices without hurting its entertainment value as a thriller.
Edward is soon introduced to the lovely Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a patient at the Stonehearst Asylum. She suffers from female hysteria, a common diagnosis in the Victorian era that does not exist in modern psychology. Eliza experiences convulsions whenever a man comes close to touch her. She was committed after biting off the ear of her wealthy husband. Edward is immediately smitten with the beautiful patient, a lady of some distinction if you could disregard her condition. He believes she has been wrongly imprisoned in the asylum and could function in normal society.
What soon becomes apparent at Stonehearst is that Dr. Lamb hides a dark secret, putting Edward’s life in jeopardy when he threatens to expose it. Edward discovers a man locked in the basement by Dr. Lamb, Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), that provides answers to the mysteries of Stonehearst Asylum. Not everything at the asylum is what it appears, forcing Edward and Eliza to work together in finding a solution to the life-threatening situation. Edward could run from his deadly situation but remains at Stonehearst, feeling an obligation to rescue Eliza from this madhouse.
This is a period thriller with a fine cast made for entertainment, not a grandiose statement on Victorian medicine.
Stonehearst Asylum could have turned into a very predictable, boring movie in less capable hands. The story covers well-trodden ground – the terrible treatment of patients in Victorian-era asylums. Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley delivers, showing a less comic intensity for the off-beat Lamb. Jim Sturgess is impressive as the young doctor falling in love while looking for a way out of his terrible situation. Kate Beckinsale is not given much to do as the female lead, though her natural charisma shines through in the limited role. Michael Caine’s character helps push the story forward and does include one of the most terrifying moments in Stonehearst Asylum, but it’s not a large role.
Another point in this thriller’s favor is the excellent production design. The Victorian-era asylum feels like another member of the cast, adding some depth to the narrative. The romance between Eliza and Edward could have been better developed, a series of final twists turn it far lighter than the preceding tone. For a movie that had gotten darker and darker with every turn in its story, the ending feels like a concession to pleasing moviegoers with fluff.
I enjoyed Stonehearst Asylum a great deal, including its primary twist which I did not see coming. This is a period thriller with a fine cast made for entertainment, not a grandiose statement on Victorian medicine. There are enough surprises to keep one’s interest all the way to its conclusion. Highly recommended if you like its leads or enjoy Victorian-era thrillers.
Millennium Entertainment presents Stonehearst Asylum in a satisfying Blu-ray that is precise and detailed. The main feature runs 112 minutes, encoded in AVC on a BD-25. Its clean cinematography helps alleviate a somewhat sub-par video encode averaging 16 Mbps, which does interject hints of occasional banding and chroma noise in the darkest scenes. Millennium has properly used Stonehearst Asylum’s native 2.39:1 aspect ratio at 1080P resolution, a welcome sign for a distributor that has pulled the wrong Hi-Def transfer before with their Blu-rays.
The movie exhibits strong clarity in the extremely sharp picture. Despite an unfiltered transfer brimming with high-frequency detail in close-ups, a pervasively dark palette prevents the kind of eye-popping cinematography seen in the best-looking BDs. Like many other films set in specific historical settings, much of the production stems from digital composites, leaving a few remnants of aliasing. The flat color palette tends to leave flesh-tones alone. Black levels are decent enough to raise no serious complaints, especially considering the amount of darker scenes.
Stonehearst Asylum has very good picture quality, occasionally achieving greatness in the better lit scenes. The consistently darker tone leads to less than stellar depth and a slightly unpolished digital sheen. It definitely has better detail and clarity than the average, new Blu-ray release these days.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is a wonderfully moody affair, packed with enough surround action to keep one in tight suspense. While the presentation is predominantly pushed to the front soundstage, it is a dense, active mix that constantly engages the listener. Most period pieces go light on expanding the mix beyond stereo. Stonehearst Asylum judiciously mixes in some LFE rumble and nicely-chosen surround cues. This is a tight soundtrack that integrates the moody score and crisply-recorded dialogue in fine balance.
A 2.0 Dolby Digital option at 192 kbps is included as well, though the effort sounded like a pale imitation of its lossless surround brother. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles display in a white font, always remaining within the widescreen framing.
This Blu-ray hits home video only two months after its theatrical debut. I guess to make it out in time for Christmas, since its story takes place around that time of year. An embossed slipcover is available with the BD.
The brief preparation time apparently precluded any in-depth special features. We get a handful of trailers at DVD resolution and one brief featurette. All trailers except the one for Stonehearst Asylum precedes the main menu.
Stonehearst Asylum: The Story of Eliza Graves (05:37 in HD) – A breezy featurette which interviews most of its cast and the director. The problem is that each actor gets only a few lines in about the film, as everything has to be crammed together in under six minutes. Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, and Ben Kingsley all make brief appearances in this fairly typical making-of featurette.
Theatrical Trailer (02:23 in SD)
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.