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A Review of "Stonehearst Asylum" / "Eliza Graves" (2014)

aka "Stonehearst Asylum"

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Stonehearst Asylum is dumb.  Really dumb.  It's the kind of movie that uses inexplicable, outrageous plot twists in place of character development to keep the story moving forward.  That being said, it's also greatly entertaining and features far better acting than it deserves.  As much as I think you can turn this movie into a drinking game, I also can't deny that I found it compelling throughout.  Check it out sometime when you're up for a mindless insanity-themed thriller.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot (Spoiler Free)

It's the year 1899 and psychological research is still in its infancy.  Doctors treat the mentally ill with contempt and cruelty, unable to grasp the harm they are actually causing with their treatments.  This point is made clearly in the opening sequence, in which a lecturer (Brendan Gleeson) parades around a hysterical woman, Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), at one of his classes.  He prods her until she freaks out and goes into a state of paralyzed shock, and then we cut away to the plot.

A young med school graduate, Dr. Newgate (Jim Sturgess) is on his way to Stonehearst Asylum to study under Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), an unusual and eccentric psychologist (but possibly also a genius).  Not only is Stonehearst a strange place where the patients are given unorthodox treatments, it also happens to be the present home of Eliza Graves.

Newgate is settling into a routine and getting to know both the staff and the patients of Stonehearst when one night he meets the mysterious Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), who reveals some unexpected truths about the Asylum.

The Part Where I Talk About Plot Twists in General (Still Spoiler Free)

I think the Internet - and maybe the world in general - has not been kind to plot twists and surprise endings over the last fifteen years or so.  In my post-adolescence, I've seen M. Night Shyamalan go from being one of the most inspired and beloved directors of a generation to a punchline simply because his movies have better than even odds of having a twist at the end.  People complain all the time about how surprise endings ruin a movie, and it's usually the first thing somebody will bitch about when they're writing a bad review.

(As it happens, I'm writing an overall good review, so I'm excepting myself from that last bit.  It's different when I do it; same as it's relaxing when I take too long a shower, but when you do it, you're killing Earth.)

Anyway.  My point of this rambling is that I think the hysteria around plot twists is overblown.  A twist or a surprise is not in and of itself a reason to complain.  Nor is it even really that much of a problem if the twist "ruins" the film that came before it - hell, we all think The Usual Suspects and Rashomon are classic films, and both of those are nothing but plot turns "ruining" the movie that came before it.

I think the real problem people have with twists comes down to one of two reasons.  Either the movie is so convinced that the twist itself will be the greatest thing people have ever seen, and so they don't both to make the rest of the movie any good, or the movie's twist isn't really all that clever, but the movie is totally sure you're going to be blown away, so they keep pretending that you haven't guessed it yet.  Sometimes it's both.

Movies like Taking Lives or Hide and Seek fall into the former category.  And that's really the worse of the two groups - a crappy movie with a twist is still a crappy movie.  Stonehearst Asylum falls into the latter group, and there's some hope with that kind.  Its twists might be annoying and preposterous, but there's a halfway decent movie backing them up.

Stephanie and I took turns guessing at the plot twists within the first ten minutes of the film and we had already hit all of them before Newgate even got to the front gates of the asylum.  That scene was almost like a metaphor.  "Alright, have you finished purging all your guesses?  Good.  Welcome to the movie!  Come on in."

(Side note: I used to be one of those guys that was really proud of himself for guessing plot twists, and I realize how irritating that is for everyone else.  I want to be clear that I'm not trying to brag when I talk about a movie being predictable - I don't think it's a special talent or anything stupid like that.  The predictability is entirely the movie's fault.  If your opening sequence is so coy or bland that I find myself trying to get ahead of the movie's plot, then that means you screwed up.)

The thing that makes Stonehearst work, though, is that once you do make your guesses and get to the Asylum, it starts to just be a movie.  You can relax and put your feet up and not have to get into some petty pissing match with the movie where you get all grumpy and yell at it for not being as smart as you.  It's a movie rich with atmosphere and good set design inviting you to stay awhile.  That's worth all the dumb twists.

Hell, even the main character basically just keeps going about his business after he learns the first plot twist.  It's like they were so excited to tell you the twist and then they shrugged and said, "Actually, never mind.  Wanna watch a movie?"

And when all is said and done, it actually does something kind of fun with the final reveal that could pretty much only happen in a movie like this.  Time for some spoilers.

The Part Where I Praise the Final Plot Twist

Okay, so, this is a movie about insanity, and movies about insanity are always about blurring the lines between truth and lies, and so obviously you're going to see at least a few twists where it turns out people are either not who they say they are.  So the first twist - that Ben Kinglsey is a former inmate who has taken control of the Asylum and Michael Caine is the true superintendent - doesn't really count.  It's just the groundwork for the plot.

The other reveals that you see along the way pander to the horror of pre-modern mental care, which works well enough even if the "shocking revelations" feel forced.  You want to show us some back story about how horrible a doctor Caine was? Makes sense.  Maybe you're hammering your point a little too hard, but whatever - it's a movie about a 19th century madhouse, so do what you gotta do.

The part where things start to get really sick, though, is when the movie lets us know that Jim Sturgess was one of the students at the beginning of the movie who saw Kate Beckinsale being torture-examined at Brendan Gleeson's lecture. He reveals that he never forgot how beautiful and vulnerable Beckinsale looked in that moment, and he vowed to rescue her.

That's when it gets really creepy, because now our hero is kind of a deplorable human being.  For one thing, it's stalker behavior, and that's never romantic or fun no matter how many movies try to tell us otherwise.  But even worse, it's a complete power imbalance; Sturgess is a doctor of higher social ranking who can use his influence to bend weaker people to his will, and when he starts pursuing an inmate at an asylum, he's going to be exploiting her even if he doesn't think he is.  This is the exact reason we have statutory rape laws.  So now our hero is yucky and the happy ending is left with a stank of grossness.

Except... the movie has one more twist up its sleeves.  And thank God it does.

See, Sturgess is actually - gasp - another inmate!  He was a patient of Brendan Gleeson, the actual Dr. Newgate, and broke out of his asylum in order to go to Stonehearst and track down Beckinsale.  He's crazy - crazy in love!

Now, you might think this actually makes it worse, but I like this.  It changes Sturgess's behavior from being the premeditated, cold, calculated work of an intelligent and powerful man... to the impulsive behavior of a whack-job.  Even better: he's an honest whack-job, because he comes clean about the whole matter before inviting Beckinsale to run away with him.

The result is that Sturgess goes from a creepy stalker rapist to kind of an adorable lunatic.  And you know what?  That's way the lesser of those two evils.

I've never seen a movie stack up so many unnecessary plot twists on top of one another that they eventually reach a more stable plateau. It's refreshing in the most unexpected way.

Where You Can Watch

Stonehearst Asylum is available everywhere physical and digital media are sold, but if you go right now, you can stream it from Netflix.