'Stonehearst Asylum' takes bold and strange material and makes it normal and boring
Stonehearst Asylum (aka Eliza Graves) Millennium Entertainment
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Joe Gangemi, based on the short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, David Thewlis, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Jason Flemyng and Michael Caine
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There's no official rule about this, but probably the most intriguing mystery in your mystery movie should not be what the actual title of said movie is. And yet here we are, with a movie that might be called Stonehearst Asylum. Or, if you believe the opening credits of the film itself, it's called Eliza Graves. Perhaps it even has a third, secret title that I'm not yet aware of. It's an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, enveloped by a banal sanitarium flick that isn't interesting enough on its own to distract us from the curious case of the title discrepancy.
I'm aware that the official moniker was reportedly changed from Eliza Graves to the more ho-hum Stonehearst Asylum some time ago, but that doesn't explain why - months after that change - the film itself still includes the supposedly discarded title. Was it changed back at the last minute? Did no one ever bother to inform the filmmakers so they could alter the opening credit sequence? Does anyone at the studio actually care?
(For the record, I asked Millennium Entertainment about the discrepancy and got no response. Apparently I must accept the mystery.)
Ultimately it's just as well that the movie doesn't know what it's called; its confusion doesn't stop there. Eliza Graves and the Stonehearst Asylum doesn't really know what it wants to be, let alone how to be it. At once a timid Gothic horror film, an unconvincing budding romance and a nondescript battle of wits between doctor and patient, captor and captive, the film never really grabs ahold of anything in particular. Instead it rambles on with conflicting intentions, as if pulling from mismatched pieces of competing screenplays.
Stonehearst Asylum: The Force Awakens is set in a madhouse, but it never manages to harness that madness into anything visceral, scary or expressionistic. This is a story in which - mild spoiler alert, though this fact is revealed very early on - the inmates have taken over the titular* asylum, so there's ample opportunity for the film to take on a warped sense of perspective, or to dive head-first into the surrounding lunacy, or to personify any kind of eccentricity whatsoever.
* Or is it?
Sadly, it doesn't; there's far too pronounced a sense of equilibrium to the whole experience. Eliza Graves: The Winter Soldier clunkily goes through the motions of a story that isn't nearly as twisty and clever as it wants to be.
Especially for a film that behaves as if it wants to be Shutter Island 2 - right down to a sinister Ben Kingsley starring as a psychologist harboring a secret about his facility - it's deceptively (and disappointingly) straightforward. Director Brad Anderson - who has done so much more imaginative work in The Machinist, Transsiberian and Vanishing on 7th Street, among others - brings a certain stateliness to the film, but few of the daring choices that I'm accustomed to seeing from him. (This makes consecutive misses for him, following last year's Halle Berry thriller The Call.) Although he does offer a few nice touches. In one scene, a character explains his purpose and personal philosophy, and Anderson punctuates the moment with the all-too-appropriate burst of a cuckoo clock. Later on there's a dinner party scene that the director injects with just the right amount of demented wit to turn the narrative in a particularly unsettling direction.
But those moments that really come alive are the exception; the rule is a general sense of familiarity and a lot of mundane Gothic mimicry.
Based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story - one whose title, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, is superior to any of the titles the movie came up with - The Eliza Graves Chronicles: Episode I - Rise of the Stonehearst Asylum* concerns a young doctor, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), who visits the asylum, which is of course in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a towering cliff, in hopes of working directly with patients. He has great interest in, and empathy for, the clinically insane, and Dr. Lamb (Kingsley) allows him to join the staff on a sort of trial basis.
* That one comes courtesy of my friend Jeremy. All rights reserved.
It doesn't take long before Newgate starts to uncover, first, the unconventional tactics of the supposed "Dr." Lamb; and second, the unsettling secrets about the staff and the patients he's gotten to know. Newgate focuses most of his attention (and affection) on the titular* Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), and here - along with at least two other key subplots - is where the film seems least confident. Their sudden tenderness and understanding toward one another is forced and abrupt, and it persistently re-focuses the energy of the story on its least interesting possibilities.
* Or is she?
Eliza is institutionalized because she attacked her presumably abusive husband - she bit off his ear, in fact - but she appears to be more sane and straight-laced than any other character, which is part of why Newgate is so taken with her. But in general hers is an under-written role, and Tyler Perry's Eliza Graves: The Asylum of Stonehearst has more theoretically interesting material to explore. Unfortunately, Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi never take the time to do so, nor do they find much of an angle on it.
It's curious to see a movie with such fundamentally idiosyncratic material and genre possibilities end up as pedestrian as this, and the fact that it's a good-looking and largely well-acted movie makes it all the more frustrating. I suppose the overriding problem is that Stonehearst Asylum: The Desolation of Smaug feels too controlled for its own good. Every twist, every character, every suspense sequence - they all feel pre-determined and docile. This is a film ostensibly driven by obsession and psychosis, in a setting (and genre) ripe for imagination and experimentation, and what we wind up with is a piece of stilted and conventional drama.