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Film / Stonehearst Asylum

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A 2014 film starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine, very loosely based on the short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether by Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1899, young Dr. Edward Newgate arrives at the remote Stonehearst Asylum to join its staff. He is surprised to learn that the asylum's superintendent, Dr. Silas Lamb, rejects the common methods of his time. The patients are free to move around the grounds rather than be drugged and imprisoned, even having their delusions encouraged when Lamb thinks this will make them happy. All is not as it seems at the asylum however, as Newgate soon makes a shocking discovery...

This film provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: The film features a background character whom the credits identify as 'Elegant Lady' but is played by a male actor and is called William by one of the nurses. It's never actually addressed whether they are a crossdresser or trans woman, but either way, given both the film's setting (Victorian England) and its themes, wearing dresses and make-up as a person assigned male at birth can be assumed to be the reason they are in the asylum (at the time, either of these would be deemed a mental illness).
  • Anti-Villain: While Lamb is a little insane and does some nasty things, his methods are much more humane than Dr. Salt's.
  • Artistic License – History: "Mickey Finn" as a term for knockout drugs didn't originate until 1915, based on a real case in 1903 of a Chicago barman by that name drugging and then robbing customers. The film has it used in England of 1899.
  • Bedlam House: Stonehearst used to be like this under Dr. Salt, with "treatments" that amounted to little more than just torture. Lamb abolished these and has instituted kinder methods. The actual Bedlam, Bethlem Hospital in London, also gets a mention.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Eliza towards Millie, to the point where Edward describes their relationship as such.
  • Campbell Country: The titular asylum is a creepy place out in the English countryside far from anywhere else with many dark and unsettling secrets.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Salt's methods to treat his patients. Sadly, this is how many asylums were run back in those days. Even one of his staff criticizes it after the fact.
  • Control Freak: While Lamb on the surface accepts the chaos that comes from doing away with Salt's prior, inhumane treatments, he slowly reveals he's not accepting of anything that might jeopardize his new system of governing patients or on a deeper level anything that interferes with his lie that he's still sane. This leads him to perform inhumane acts himself to anyone that threatens him.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Lamb says that a man who was clearly stabbed in the back has been killed by a blow from a horse's hoof. He does point out, though, that he isn't a coroner or trained in pathology, nor is Newgate.
  • Domestic Abuse: Implied to be the case with Eliza, whose husband was apparently possessed of "unnatural" appetites, and it's likely the cause of her mental illness too.
  • The Dragon: Finn is one to Lamb, his chief lieutenant in the inmate-run asylum. Unlike Lamb, he's actually a homicidal maniac who still feels the compulsion to kill and does so remorselessly.
  • Driven to Suicide: A man kills himself after escaping from Stonehearst. Lamb also attempted this in the past, but failed to because he ran out of bullets.
  • Dr. Psych Patient: The main character discovers that the entire staff of a mental hospital have been replaced by the patients, who took over the asylum. Some of them are actually much nicer than those they replaced. The ending reveals he himself is a patient impersonating a psychiatrist too.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: It takes only a glimpse of Eliza for Edward to plan an escape from his asylum, assume a false identity, walk all the way to Stonehearst in the middle of winter, and integrate himself among the staff in order to rescue her.
  • Electro Convulsive Therapy Is Torture: We see ECT used in flashbacks which clearly causes the patients extreme pain (at the time, no anesthetic was given, with its application half-hazard). Lamb later shocks Salt to the point he loses his memory in revenge. Newgate is also tortured by its use on him.
  • Empty Shell: Both Dr. Lamb and Dr. Salt are almost catatonic at the end of the film - Salt from brain damage due to repeated electric shock administered by Lamb, while Lamb winds up in much the same state by the trauma of recalling the events that put him in the asylum in the first place. In the closing scene they're sitting together at the same table as patients in Stonehearst - having regained enough of their wits to play chess.
  • Mad Doctor: Lamb. While his methods towards mental health are humane in and of themselves, he keeps the real staff locked up, puts a homicidal maniac like Finn in charge of security, shows no remorse when Finn kills an escaped staff member and later one of the patients, electroshocks Salt into amnesia and tortures Newgate.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Mickey Finn", which is slang for knockout drugs, hence "slipping a mickey". Of course this is what the character with this name did to the real staff, and almost does to Newgate. There's some Lampshade Hanging involved, as Newgate points out the significance of Mickey Finn's name just before he lives up to it.
    • "Silas Lamb" sounds like a sneaky reference to a chapter in the story of another fictional madman - Hannibal Lecter.
    • Doctor "Newgate" (also the name of a famous prison in London).
  • Mercy Kill: It turns out this was Lamb's motivation in the "incident" which landed him at the asylum.
  • Persecution Flip: The central plot of the film, just like the original story by Poe.
  • Rewatch Bonus:
    • The film contains several lines alluding to the fact that Newgate is an escaped mental patient passing himself off as a doctor. Lamb gets a sense they are "kindred spirits," and later taunts him with "We're all mad, just some of us aren't mad enough to admit it."
    • An early scene where Newgate gets a ride from a family to Stonehearst becomes particularly ironic in this light. The daughter mentions that her father was reluctant to pick Newgate up, thinking he might be an escapee, but she reasoned that an escaped mental patient would be heading away from an asylum, not towards it.
  • Sanity Slippage: Lamb. Though he was mad to begin with, over the course of the movie he gets worse. After seeing a picture of one of the boys he killed, he breaks down.
  • Slipping a Mickey: The staff were drugged this way by some of the inmates so they could take over the asylum. A couple of the nurses died, as they used too much it seems.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: Sure, it's OK to tie down mad and dangerous people, but then, it depends what you do to them when strapped. Also, what will happen if the mad people then manage to strap you on a table?
  • Twist Ending: "Newgate" is really a patient impersonating the actual Dr. Newgate, who become infatuated with Eliza after seeing her in the real Newgate's demonstration (he was the next patient brought in). At the end they are in Italy with the alias of Dr. and Mrs. Lamb, in charge of an asylum that uses methods like the real Lamb advocated.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • Lamb, who only wants the patients treated humanely, but is willing to imprison, kill or torture anyone who gets in his way; he also refuses to admit that even when treated humanely and given work that greatly improves their condition, many of his "staff" still cannot meet the logistical requirements of running the asylum, to the point that the heating systems are breaking down and critical medical supplies are running out.
    • By modern standards Dr. Salt may also qualify, as he is genuinely determined to cure his patients if he can, however brute-force his methods. He would not have seemed an extremist to people of his day and age, unfortunately, as many of those methods were commonly used to try treating mental illness at the time.
  • Worthy Opponent: Newgate eventually becomes this for Lamb, since both are attempting to improve the lives of the mentally ill and both are escaped mental patients pretending to be doctors. When Lamb, having been defeated by Newgate, discovers his adversary was actually a patient like himself masquerading as a physician, he seems to accept Newgate was this trope.