Fearless Feminist Reporter Nellie Bly Hits the Big Screen

Modern-day news consumers have long forgotten about 19th-century reporter Nellie Bly, despite the fact that she was the most impressive journalist of her time. Feminist, adventurer and ultimate risk-taker, she traveled around the world in 72 days, and pushed her way to the top of the male-dominated news industry.

But she did her most impressive work in 1887 when, at just 23 years old, she pretended to be insane for an undercover report on the conditions at a women’s mental asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She spent 10 grueling and horrifying days in the institution but never regretted it, because her expose for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World would shake the nation to its core. Thanks to her, the asylum was later demolished.

I have long thought that Nellie Bly’s life story would be perfect for the big screen. You can’t get much more daring and badass than Bly. Now finally, someone else agrees! A new film called 10 Days in a Madhouse tells the incredible story of Bly’s chilling undercover investigation.

Written and directed by Timothy Hines, I can honestly say this movie is a must-see. Nellie Bly’s heroism and courage truly come to life on the screen, thanks to the work of talented up-and-coming actor Caroline Barry. Barry is instantly magnetic as Bly, and it’s hard not to root for and fall in love with her character as the story progresses.

Hines also does a great job showing just how grotesque and abusive the conditions really were at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. In the film, Bly encounters creepy and uncaring doctors, sadistic nurses and several incarcerated women who are clearly not insane and should never have been sent to the asylum in the first place. Several are locked up for reasons that would make feminists rage, such as catching their husband having an affair, just being poor, or not being able to speak English well enough to plead their case.

I say incarcerated because, as the film shows, the asylum is truly a prison rather than a center for palliative care. Bly and her fellow “patients” must endure freezing cold baths, threadbare and sullied gowns, disgusting living conditions, stale food and beatings from the institution’s support staff. They are not allowed to read because it might stir their “fevered” emotions and are forced to drink “medicinal” concoctions of morphine at night.

The doctors refuse to allow the women to prove whether or not they really are insane, and easily dehumanize their wards. In one gut-wrenching scene, Bly forces herself to play an old piano in the asylum to drown out the cries of a patient being raped by a doctor. She also witnesses the murder of one of her friends at the hands of superintendent E.C. Dent, who takes no issue with treating the women as guinea pigs for his “scientific” work. Bly is very nearly killed by him too, until her release is secured in the nick of time.

When she finally does escape the asylum, Bly can’t remember how long she spent there. To the viewer, it seems like months have passed. This is not a criticism against the film; it is a compelling watch and Hines keeps the pacing flowing well. But it certainly is a mind-boggling realization that Bly witnessed and experienced all this brutality in little more than a week.

The script is based on Bly’s reporting and book about her experience, and the dialogue appears to be drawn from Bly’s writings. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of sounding somewhat awkward and stiff to the contemporary moviegoer.

That said, all of the asylum patients are well played, most particularly by actors Julia Chantrey, Natalia Davidenko and Jessa Campbell. Christopher Lambert is strong as the superintendent, but his character comes off as largely one-dimensional, as do the tyrannical nurses. The film also misses a few opportunities to up the tension. For instance, I had hoped for a more cathartic climax when Bly confronts Dr. Dent after he has killed her friend.

However, these shortcomings do not detract from the overall awesomeness of the film, which was made with a relatively small budget. And I can hardly blame Hines for the lack of funds to create a slicker product. The problem lies not with him, but with Hollywood. Films like 10 Days in a Madhouse that feature incredible and aspirational female role models deserve to be made, but are largely ignored by sexist movie execs.

I can only hope that after its initial release, perhaps a major studio will pick up the film and up its production value—just as long as they still cast Barry as the lead.

10 Days in a Madhouse opens today in New York and Nov. 20 nationwide.




Christina Maria Paschyn is an international journalist and holds both a bachelor and a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She blogs about feminist issues at femitup.com