There should be no doubt in any historian’s mind that Nellie Bly was a pioneer: The writer formerly known as Elizabeth Jane Cochran became one of the United States’ first investigative reporters, she was an around-the-world solo adventurer (in about 80 days), and later, she distinguished herself as an industrialist—the fact that she lived such an accomplished life as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century is simply mind-boggling. Taking on Bly’s biopic would be a challenge for anyone who’d try to capture the woman’s ferocity and fearlessness, without turning the character into a caricature. 10 Days in a Madhouse, written and directed by Timothy Hines (War of the Worlds – The True Story), sagaciously narrows down the scope of Bly’s biography to a pivotal episode in her journalistic career—focusing on her time as an embedded reporter in an asylum—but it’s thwarted by one-dimensional characters, awkward, hammy acting and clumsy dialogue.
Though it’s meant to be a straight-up drama, 10 Days in a Madhouse’s opening scene nearly reaches the heights of B-movie camp. A woman in restraints and a bloodied hospital gown writhes in pain on a medical table. She’s held down by two nurses as a nervous doctor in a suit prepares a syringe. Cue the scary music as Dr. Dent (a raspy-voiced Christopher Lambert), the superintendent of the facility, enters the dark room to observe. Within minutes of the treatment, the patient convulses and dies. Dent orders the attending physician to stop revival attempts. “Enough! Send her to the crematorium…I will make out the papers,” he yells. The only elements missing from this wooden exchange are thunder, lightning and a mad scientist’s cackling.
We first meet Nellie Bly (Caroline Barry) in 1887, after a fascinating opening credit sequence that combines archival photos of New York City with a touch of animation—the effect is haunting (and one of the best parts of the film)—she’s 23, plucky, perky and ever the optimist. Her ebullient attitude fails to impress the taciturn Joseph Pulitzer (Sam Davidow), who’s hesitant about a woman on staff at The World News. Her new editor John Cockerill (Bob Olin), however, is willing to give her a tryout: She must infiltrate Blackwell’s Island Asylum for Women to investigate allegations of mistreatment of patients.
Bly decides to feign mental illness to get properly committed, but Cockerill doesn’t have an escape strategy to get her out. Undeterred by missing this key part of the plan, she smiles oddly throughout their exchange, to the point of distraction. Her editor finally says what we’ve all been thinking: “I am afraid of that chronic smile of yours.” “I will smile no more,” she responds, with yet another smile. It’s all too much: We understand that this is the cub reporter’s first big break, but the acting choices in this scene, and many others that follow, are just peculiar. Barry’s better at conveying a sanguine Bly than she is depicting the grittiness required of the reporter’s time at Blackwell’s. The nuance of fear and excitement needed at a torturous mental institution isn’t the newcomer’s forte.
The asylum also serves as a dumping ground for women who were deemed unsalvageable or unwanted by their husbands, families or society, and Bly finds some of the patients are just as sane as she is. She documents the prison-like atmosphere for a health facility, with the rancid food, the verbal and physical abuse by staff, the unsanitary conditions (the patients were given baths with the same water), and the lack of blankets and appropriate clothing. Yet, Hines follows Bly’s journey through the madhouse in a formulaic and uninspired manner, deriving only a perfunctory sense of desperation and resignation from the patients, providing no in-depth backstories or throughlines to get the audience invested in the characters, and meanwhile treating the evil doctors and nurses, whom we can barely tell apart, with the exact same level of detail, allowing them to laugh and then torment and beat the patients in only slightly different ways. Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science; Hard to Kill), who has high billing in the credits, should logically have an interesting supporting character to play, but her nurse is just as unmemorable, with as much (or as little) inconsequential screen time as the rest.
Many of the film’s interior scenes are set in dark, dingy rooms (though cleaner than we imagined), locations hampered by dour, workmanlike cinematography, shot as if the actors were engaging in a local, amateur stage production. The sound and voices, in many of these sets, are distracting, such as in Cockerill’s cavernous office, where conversations are too echo-y, again lending the production a small-time theatrical sense.
Those familiar with Bly’s book or life story know that through her investigation of this facility, significant policy changes were made to the care for the mentally ill on Blackwell’s Island—and beyond. That part of the story is rushed through in the film, with the last few scenes quickly tying up some of the loose ends on characters that barely left an impression in the first place. Bly’s life is an intrinsically compelling one, and the failure of 10 Days in a Madhouse is that it never once lives up to the indelible nature of the life it portrays.
Director: Timothy Hines
Writer: Timothy Hines (screenplay); Nellie Bly (book)
Starring: Caroline Barry, Christopher Lambert, Kelly LeBrock, Julia Chantrey, Alexandra Callas, David Mitchum Brown
Release Date: November 11, 2015 (New York); November 20, 2015 (nationwide)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.