Thursday, 27 November 2014

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

Madness and Civilisation: The Masterpiece Theatre edition!

Released in the US for Halloween, Stonehearst Asylum is a rare Edgar Allen Poe story that hasn’t been tried out for the big screen previously. So instead of huge hams like Vincent Prize, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff camping it up in a gothic, highly atmospheric B-movie in the 1960s, we have Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Kate Beckinsale hamming it up a gothic, highly atmospheric and tasteful over-produced movie in the 2010s.

The gimmick in “The system of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” is that the inmates have taken over the asylum, a fact that the protagonist (played in the film by Jim Sturgess), despite his wide-eyed innocence and naivete, deciphers over the course of a surreal dinner party, to his growing horror. The twist in the short story is that liberated from the oversight of the progressive asylum staff, the inmates decide to bring back the positively mediaeval system of punishment and harsh treatment. Stonehearst Asylum turns the original twist on its head: under new management of the inmates, the asylum casts away the positively mediaeval system of punishment, harsh treatment, and humiliating debasement in favour of a liberal, progressive system...

What the film achieves, once it ventures past the initial set-up, is a historical look at the science of early psychiatry and the institution of the asylum, from the viewpoint of the 2010s. The sentiments seem to be chiefly, that the prevailing scientific paradigm of the day turns out to be precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true, and how we should congratulate ourselves for being enlightened and better people. This trope was played for laughs in Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria; here, it is played straight as a tasteful, Masterpiece Theatre version of Changeling.

Where other Poe adaptations fail because of the difficulty of adapting the short story form to the feature film format, the challenge in Stonehearst Asylum is transforming a biting satire on humanity’s unshakeable belief in progress and progressive attitudes into a romantic narrative extolling progress and progressive attitudes. Where Poe satirises the reactionary movement against the Enlightenment as well as the illiberal undercurrents within the Enlightenment, Stonehearst Asylum aims for a neater story. The result is a well-plotted and neatly paced thriller that at crucial moments, lacks the manic, febrile passion and intellectual overstimulation of a work by Poe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jan Svankmajer's 'Lunacy' is partly based on the same story.