Movie review: Thrill ride of madness, murder and mayhem

(From left) Jim Sturgess, Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in Stonehearst Asylum.
(From left) Jim Sturgess, Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in Stonehearst Asylum.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Review Drama thriller

STONEHEARST ASYLUM (PG13)

113 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: A young doctor, Edward (Jim Sturgess), travels to the bleak and forbidding Stonehearst Asylum around the turn of the 20th century for his apprenticeship. He meets the charismatic man in charge, Dr Lamb (Ben Kingsley), his unsavoury right-hand man Finn (David Thewlis) and the lovely and fragile Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). But nothing and no one are what they seem. Based on the short story The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether by Edgar Allan Poe.

Madness, murder and mayhem. These were the stuff of lurid Victorian drama and also of writer Poe's works. And director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, 2004) does a good job of bringing that melodramatic sensibility to the big screen.

He deftly evokes a specific time and place with the first scene set in Oxford University in 1899. A distraught and dishevelled woman is wheeled into a room full of medical students and a professor intones that every mad woman insists she is sane. In such unenlightened times, terrible fates awaited women unlucky enough to be diagnosed with "hysteria".

The next time we see her, though, the beautiful Graves is dressed in a gown and playing the piano. No doubt she is in an asylum, but her circumstances are much improved.

The questions of how and why start to form in viewers' minds. Anderson doles out scenes which seem reasonable and plausible while, at the same time, sowing seeds of doubt in your mind. Something is not quite right, but viewers cannot quite put their finger on what is wrong.

Lamb seems at first to be some kind of visionary who advocates treating patients with kindness. But his method of feeding fantasies is radical and he takes issue with the idea of curing them. Regarding a man who imagines himself to be an animal, he says: "Cure them and make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse?"

What is going on at Stonehearst Asylum? Why does Graves seem so frightened? Who exactly is Dr Lamb?

Kingsley, with his piercing gaze and sometimes off-kilter pronouncements, keeps you guessing. Edward appears to be an earnest do-gooder and Beckinsale (Underworld: Awakening, 2012) is well cast as the beauty in peril who brings out the protective side of men.

As revelations unfold, you find your sympathies swinging one way then the other like a boat on gloomy, choppy seas.

The best way to enjoy the film is to know as little about it as possible and let Anderson take you on a dark and Gothic thrill ride.