The lunatics have seldom taken over the asylum so literally, yet to so little reward, as in “Stonehearst Asylum.” Not exactly qualifying as horror, costume drama, mystery, parable or satire, this well-mounted Gothic meller — as much as it’s anything — arrives top-heavy with prestige British acting talent but never quite finds its footing, or a discernible point. Arriving the week before Halloween in a half-dozen territories including the U.S., the pic’s familiar faces and promise (however empty) of a moderately scary good time should generate more idle curiosity than B.O., with word of mouth unlikely to help. Ancillary prospects are likely to be healthier, but this fairly expensive-looking production will face a long slog recouping its costs.
After a medical-school prologue in which a Victorian-era surgeon instructor (Brendan Gleeson, seen only here and at the end) parades a distraught female sufferer of “hysteria” before his students, we’re introduced to Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), himself a recent graduate of Oxford. Seeking clinical experience, he’s come to the remote titular institution on Christmas Eve, 1899, to beg for a residency as assistant to superintendent Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). But it’s immediately apparent that Lamb’s notions of treatment are highly unorthodox, to say the least. Indeed, he scarcely seems to treat patients at all, preferring to let them indulge their delusions as they will. Fraternization between loonies and staffers is not at all discouraged; in fact, one might in have a very hard time distinguishing between them.
As Newgate soon realizes, there’s a reason for that: The inmates recently seized control, imprisoning their erstwhile keepers (including Michael Caine as the real superintendent) in the vast facility’s dungeon-like basement. They explain that a poisoning scheme masterminded by the diabolical Lamb, a former military man convicted of war atrocities, killed off much of the staff. The weak, captive survivors urge the newcomer to escape and bring help. But he’s now too smitten with Lady Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), the hysteria-ridden noblewoman we glimpsed early on, to leave.
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Instead, he makes the dubious decision to stay, hoping to somehow persuade Lamb back to reason while courting the skittish Eliza and fending off the suspicions of the doctor’s surly assistant/enforcer, the all-too-aptly-named Mickey Finn (David Thewlis). Things culminate with an anarchic New Year’s Eve ball that heralds not just the dawn of a new century, but also the implosion of this dangerous charade.
Joseph Gangemi’s screenplay is based on a humorously macabre 1844 Edgar Allan Poe story that’s been adapted numerous times before, notably by two screen surrealists: Juan Lopez Moctezuma in his 1973 cult film “The Mansion of Madness,” and Jan Svankmajer with 2005’s “Lunacy” (which also took inspiration from the Marquis de Sade). Both predecessors were much bolder, if more esoteric, statements than “Stonehearst Asylum” ends up being. Never quite sure whether it’s aiming for suspense, absurdism, romance, or something else, the pic simply tries for everything in half-hearted fashion, with results that are neither sufficiently plausible nor fantastical.
Mostly involved in quality cable skeins of late, helmer Brad Anderson has previously adapted to a range of feature genres, doing particularly well with Hitchcockian intrigue (“Transsiberian”) and ambiguous, atmosphere-heavy thrillers (“Session 9,” “The Machinist”). But he stage-manages the hectic yet pedestrian script here with a detached professionalism that suggests limited control of a project (whose prior title, “Eliza Graves,” suggests an abandoned original narrative focus) that might well have been creatively compromised before he came onboard.
The design contributions are handsome enough in Tom Yatsko’s widescreen lensing (with mountainous Bulgarian locations that look absolutely nothing like the intended rural England), but neither they nor the equally imposing cast (which also includes Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack and “Nymphomaniac’s” Sophie Kennedy Clark) are sufficiently served by the writing and direction. The result is polished, watchable and reasonably energetic — and still feels like a going-through-the-motions salvage job. It’s particularly weakened by a knee-jerk, caper-comedy-style happy ending that reduces insanity to something one can simply shrug off at will.
This won’t be a highlight on anyone’s resume, with performances ranging from the overwrought (Beckinsale, plus several thesps in one-note patient roles) to the competently clock-punching. Pic could have used a soundtrack with considerably more flavorsome eccentricity than John Debney’s conventional orchestral score.