Although the movie's answer hardly qualifies as profound, its high-grade cast -- particularly Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and David Thewlis -- seems to be having a good time with a Gothic tale set at the dawn of the 20th Century.
The movie wastes no time establishing a creepy atmosphere. Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at spooky Stonehearst Asylum to serve a residency as a staff psychiatrist, known in this movie as an "alienist."
Thrown off guard by caretaker Mickey Finn (Thewlis), Newgate is further flummoxed by the asylum's weirdly imperious superintendent, Dr. Silas Lamb (Kingsley).
Dr. Lamb believes that it's better to allow patients to follow their madness than to treat them abusively.
I doubt you'll be surprised when Dr. Newgate discovers that the patients have revolted and thrown the real staff into the asylum's dungeon.
The point: 19th century methods for treating the insane constituted a cruel and inhuman form of punishment. The staff, led by Caine's character, deserves to be punished.
That message plays second fiddle to the mixture of melodrama and macabre comedy that director Brad Anderson serves up -- with particular help from an acerbic and slightly unhinged Kingsley.
Also clear from the outset is Northgate's infatuation with a supposedly dangerous but beautiful patient (Kate Beckinsale), a hysteric who freezes when touched.
The movie's over-the-top and self-consciously melodramatic approach (cue the thunder!) works well enough, until final scenes engulf the screen in flames.
Warning: Caine's role is small. Same goes for Brendan Gleeson, who appears at the movie's beginning and at its end.
If you're looking for horror, look elsewhere: Stonehearst Asylum isn't particularly scary, but its production values are strong, and there's something to be said for watching a grade A cast take a bumpy journey through B-movie terrain.