#85: Stonehearst Asylum

Not as good as Session 9, if we’re comparing Brad Anderson films

june gloom
4 min readMar 31


This review was originally posted to Twitter on April 22, 2019.

Initial release: 2014
Director: Brad Anderson

One would think that adapting one of Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser known works to film, with an A-list cast, would elevate that work in the public consciousness and make it more accessible to modern audiences. One would think.

While this film, based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” attempts to present an intellectual thriller-slash-commentary on the horrors of 19th century medicine, and even mostly succeeds, it still presents itself as a lurid penny dreadful, albeit a fun one. Now to be fair, the original story was meant to be a grimly farcical commentary in and of itself. But where the original story used macabre humor, the film is a more taciturn and straightforward affair, very much in the style of similar period thrillers made since the late 1990s.

Following an Oxford University lecture presentation of a case of hysteria, young doctor Edward Newgate journeys to distant, isolated Stonehearst Asylum to begin his residency. Arriving on Christmas Eve, 1899, he meets the director, one Dr. Silas Lamb, and bears witness to Dr. Lamb’s unorthodox treatment methods. Dr. Lamb believes in letting his patients be themselves, rather than drugging them or subjecting them to the torturous “treatments” that were common to mental health care at the time. Also here is the young woman who was presented at Oxford, though she seems perfectly fine compared to the agony she seemed to be in at the presentation.

As is always the case, all is not as it seems, however, as our hysteria patient, Eliza Graves, insists that he leave as soon as possible. He’s confused and unwilling to leave, but he soon discovers why she was so adamant about it: the real hospital staff have been imprisoned and the inmates are running the asylum. What follows is a sometimes tense psychological thriller where Newgate tries to find a way to retake the asylum from Dr. Lamb (who is, or at least was, a real doctor at one time) while ensuring that Dr. Lamb and his cronies don’t know that he knows.

While the film doesn’t quite stick the landing on the central theme on the dual natures of sanity and insanity, it’s still a landing the film manages to walk away from, at least as far as the character of Dr. Lamb is concerned, and what he represents. Dr. Lamb, in his villainy, is only trying to do right by the other patients, some of whom don’t even belong there but were imprisoned by their well-to-do families as embarrassments. It’s a stark contrast from the unfeeling cruelty of his predecessor, Dr. Salt (Michael Caine, who was seemingly in everything about 10 years ago.) Lamb, meaningfully-named and expertly played by Ben Kingsley, is an extraordinary character, far more interesting than Newgate (Jim Sturgess) or even Eliza (Kate Beckinsale, amazingly enough.) He elevates the film from mere schlock to something approaching meaningful.

It’s worth mentioning that this all takes place on the eve of the twentieth century, which seems to have symbolic meaning of its own, looking forward to a more hopeful, humane future, a time of reform and new ideas, an abandonment of the darkness of 19th century science.

While the film pulls a twist ending entirely out of its ass, even going so far as to cut off the big reveal at first only to show it for real a few minutes later just to tease the audience for the big letdown that much longer, the actual scenario the ending presents seems to live up to Lamb’s dream, even if he is defeated by his own madness. Director Brad Anderson tries hard to keep the asylum from being a character in and of itself; as such, while he does linger on the sheer bedlam that the place has become, he’s careful not to let it become more than set dressing. It’s a far cry from Anderson’s earlier film Session 9, another film set in an asylum (in this case the long-abandoned Danvers State Hospital.) That film was sharper, nastier, and the use of the real Danvers hospital as its set made the film far more unsettling; the actors were even a little afraid of the place, and it showed in their performances. Danvers couldn’t help but be a character in its own right; Stonehearst, in contrast, could just as easily have been a matte painting on an empty stage for all its actual presence in the film.

Films like this, with little in the way of real jump scares or even much action, live and die on their scripts, and the A-list cast of British film veterans do their damnedest to uphold a script that’s often awkward (but not horrible.) A lesser cast would not have been able to get this thing in the air. But if there’s an underlying flaw to the film, it’s that it never quite manages to completely come together around its themes — it’s still too solidly stuck in the post-millennial “lurid period thriller” genre that gave us schlockbusters like Brotherhood of the Wolf. But at its core, it still achieves its overall goals, while also being visually arresting and giving us great actors giving the film their A-game. It’s not the best film about the history of mental health care, and it certainly can’t measure up to Session 9, but it’s still a decent watch.



june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/they]