The story of journalist Nellie Bly going undercover in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in the 1880s is hugely important and fascinating. And while the Lifetime TV movie Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story (2019) looks better than the last very shitty attempt at the tale, it still doesn’t actually discuss Bly’s pioneering work. Instead, this version is just another historical horror vehicle for Christina Ricci. Ho-hum.
Instead of showing Bly as a writer who infiltrates the asylum, this movie posits Bly as amnesia victim trapped in the asylum and trying to get out. She slowly regains her memory, seemingly with the help and romantic affections of Dr. Josiah (Josh Bowman), while fighting the cartoonishly cruel Matron Grady (Judith Light). The plot is pretty dumb, but all the actors give it their best, and the production values are relatively high. If you knew nothing about the history, you might enjoy this as a Victorian thriller.
It’s just annoying as hell to use pioneering writer and activist Nellie Bly’s name this way. While 2015’s 10 Days in a Madhouse had absolutely awful costumes, settings, camerawork, and acting, at least the script used real historical text from Bly and didn’t mess around with the facts. This 2019 flick is pure fiction. If the two movies were combined, one decent Nellie Bly screen story might have resulted. C’mon, Hollywood, you can do it!