"Stonehearst Asylum," starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Kingsley, is a Victoria-era psychological thriller with some good twisty turns thanks to the inspiration of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
The psychology is there too. The setting is a British insane asylum whose troubled patients on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1899 occupy a once-mannerly estate that has slipped into very ill-mannered debauchery and decay.
But the scare, that terror of being locked away and at the mercy of the barbaric "remedies" used at the time to treat mental ails, never takes hold. The scene is certainly macabre with Stonehearst patients encouraged to indulge their delusions and mingle freely about the place. And nothing, including the hospital staff, is what it seems.
Yet no spine-tingling chill or sense of desperation sets in even as the heat goes off, the food runs out and the inmates get increasingly unruly. The effect is more like the run-through of an elaborate stage play, the actors being asked to hit their marks but save their best for opening night.
It's unfortunate given this accomplished cast, which counts Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson among its supporting players. And surprising given the riveting mind games director Brad Anderson managed in "The Machinist." The 2004 thriller featured a skeletal Christian Bale as an industrial worker unable to sleep and slowly losing his mind, with Anderson pulling the tension so taut you felt your nerves might snap.
Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether" provided the main fodder for Joseph Gangemi's screenplay, which succeeds in devising a series of intriguing plot turns. It's the connective tissue of things — the time between Twist A and Twist B — where the story goes limp, undoing the power of the surprise.
The story begins in a lecture hall with Gleeson as the Alienist (as psychiatrists were called in that day) pontificating on the care of the deranged. Eliza Graves (Beckinsale) is wheeled out for a demonstration. Beautiful but unkempt and pleading with the students that she is sane, her case is briefly laid out. Any human touch sends her into a frenzied state.
Cut to Christmas Eve. Aspiring alienist Edward Newgate (Sturgess) is pounding on the locked gates of Stonehearst, hoping to study with the well-known Dr. Salt (Caine). But Salt has been replaced by Dr. Silas Lamb (Kingsley), who agrees to take on Newgate as his assistant.
Something seems off about the place, the insanity seeping into Alain Bainee's gothic-tinged production design and costumes by Thomas Olah. Director of photography Thomas Yatsko picks up the dark mood, making the most of a color scheme of gloomy grays.
Despite reservations, Newgate gamely considers Lamb's revolutionary treatment ideas — which basically eliminate treatment. The patient who thinks he's a horse is left to do horsy things. Eliza, now in a lovely dress, is allowed to spend as much time as she wants at the piano, pounding out her angst in the playing. The music is exquisite. As is she.
Newgate is immediately attracted to Eliza, and their growing attraction becomes one of the engines driving the film. The young doctor's discovery of a dungeon, its cells holding Salt and his associates, is the other.
The film soon becomes a tug-of-war between the unenlightened practices of the past and the more humane notions that would begin to frame the treatment of the mentally ill. Lamb's new idea, shock therapy, lives in both worlds.
Sturgess' Newgate is the glue meant to hold it all together, and he makes the young protege's conflicted thoughts very real. But like many of the actor's roles, his performance is far better than the finished project, as was his card-counting MIT mastermind in "21" and his romantic leading man in "One Day."
Meanwhile, Kingsley is quite good at making Lamb seem sometimes sane, sometime crazed. But when Beckinsale's Eliza becomes the picture of normalcy, the character becomes much less interesting.
On the surface, Anderson seems to have all the necessary pieces for a surreal psycho pop. But the fear factor eludes him, leaving "Stonehearst Asylum" more insipid than insane.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing and biolent images, sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood