Escaping the Madhouse: The intricacies of mental illness and the correlation it has to our health is a fairly new addition to the medical field. So recent that it wasn’t even a requirement to have a separate doctor for mental and physical needs until 1774. From the concept’s inception women have been perceived as the defining standard for mania in it’s many forms. It became commonplace to send wives and daughters away to asylums for a myriad of reasons ranging from basic mental needs to non-societal conformity to lack of space to keep them around.
Asylums and institutions alike were designed to “right the mind” of the wild femininity using cruel and unusual correctional structures often leaving patience more broken than when they arrived. Words used in their diagnosis were akin to Melencolia, willfulness, and my personal favorite, “possessed by evil spirits.”
Blackwell Island Asylum, the backdrop of our horror today, was only one of many institutions that were popularized in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
In the movie Escaping The Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story starring Christiana Ricci as Nellie Bly and directed by Karen Moncrieff, we follow the retelling of the real life investigative journalist Nellie Bly, and the expose that made her famous Ten Days In a Madhouse. An article turned novel about health conditions of facilities, treatments, and cures for polarized mental illnesses in the late 1880s.
A Movie By Any Other Name
Nellie Bly or Nellie Brown shows through the broken mind of an unreliable narrator what it means to be a patient at Blackwell asylum. The story starts with Nellie being scoped out by men waiting to potentially claim the famous “amnesia girl of Blackwell Island.” Under the supervision of her psychiatrist Dr. Josiah (Josh Bowman) and Asylum matron Grady (Judith Light,) they attempt to discern who Miss Brown was and how she came about her forgetful condition.
As we further into the film Nellie is tossed between the kind treatment of her doctor and the harsh reality of the asylum all while trying to figure out what happened to her memories. It becomes a race against time and system as she determines who she can trust, protecting those around her, and how many more “treatments” she can handle before it becomes too much.
How Much is Too Much?
Oftentimes it is hard to depict real-life events and experiences without liberal embellishments or biased depictions of circumstances without sharing in the nuances of the times through a modern eye. This can ring especially true when the average span of a movie is an hour and forty minutes and you’re attempting to fill it with years of events. It can downplay trauma and cross into the territory of infantilization, but I was pleasantly surprised with the delicacy with which Nelly and the other patient’s stories were handled in this adaptation.
It gave a gruesome peek into why some women were admitted, showcasing characters like Johair (Josie Namwira) whose crime was both her skin color and inability to speak English. Similar circumstances were that for Rosa and an immigrant from Mexico. Other examples were sex workers, old women who had outlived their ability to care for their families, and in our Nellie’s case, women with too many ideas.
Casting and Stereotypes
Despite Nellie’s admittance being of her own design her ability to keep her sanity in the face of unusual cures is a plot device relied heavily upon in the narration. Of course, it can be challenging to make a telling without the fabrication of a few details to make the story more digestible, or to fill in what has been lost to history.
This came into the script with the help of Dr. Johsia and his growing infatuation with Nellie as the story progressed. It was an artistic liberty decided to show the very real reality of many women who were left at the mercy of men with little regulation, privacy, and the protection of mania. Similarly, a fellow patient, Lottie Hollister (Anja Savcic) was the quintessential example of what happens to women with strong emotions.
The embellishments were to be expected, but they weren’t inherently overbearing or take away from the overall message the movie was attempting to tell.
Furthermore, It was also a fantastic display of making Nellie’s stay at Blackwell Asylum feel as Nellie herself put it, “like an eternity,” when in actuality, which is stated towards the end, was only ten days.
The Real Nellie Bly
The movie touches briefly on Nellie’s rise to fame following the accounts of Blackwell, but doesn’t go into the very real impact that she had on the medical industry and how her expose brought about the very real and complete reform of mental health care at the turn of the century. In turn she coined the literal term “investigative journalism,” sparking a trend for “stunt girls” to follow in her footsteps.
Overall the movie cast a realistic light onto what patients, genuinely ill, or not, were subjected to when stamped undesirable.
Utilizing lighting and colors
It too utilized all elements of melancholy to showcase the absolute seclusion of the women. Using muted grays and dark blue clothing against the backdrop of New York winter that didn’t match, nor fit was perfect to convey the use of neglect as a power tool against their status as prisoners. This was further solidified in the Matron and nurse’s wardrobes, which were fitted to the climate and working conditions.
For me, the cherry on top of the cake was the use of lighting. Most of the film was shot in the same dreary muted gray, but when Nellie would begin to grasp at a memory it was bathed in a yellow sunny glow. Despite what was meant to be an escape the bits of sun often left Nellie with more confusion and questions than when she initially started.
This can be similarly illustrated in the movie Ghostland. The lead character Beth lives in a dream world that protects her from the brutal reality that she lives in. A close eye can subtly see visual cues that indicate which of Beth’s realities are on screen.
Escaping the Madhouse – Final thoughts
In conclusion, the movie did exactly as it set out to do. It entertained while conveying the struggles of the women that came before us. Was it a perfect representation of Nellie Bly or the trauma inflicted by the mental health system of the 1880s? No, but it also wasn’t trying to be. The intrinsic attempt to tell an entertaining yet moving story was attained and the ending in both real lives and fictionalized left the spectators with a sense of hope for the future.