In 1877, Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902) (Colm Feore) becomes the superintendent of the asylum in London Ontario, where physical restraints are used. His lovely but tense wife (Wendel Meldrum) is grudgingly deferential to his professional needs. They are parents of a happy little girl. Bucke travels to a Philadelphia conference to read a paper on his liberal ideas about care of the mentally ill, but he senses the intolerance of the audience and storms out.

An odd "free thinker" in the audience--who turns out to be the great American poet Walt Whitman (Rip Torn)--admired the paper. Whitman invites the doctor to meet his mentally disturbed brother kept at home rather than in an asylum. Smitten with Whitman and his philosophy, Bucke brings him to Canada.

At first, his wife and the town are suspicious of the famous stranger, but they gradually change their minds. The asylum replaces its coercive methods of care with exercise, music, and talk. The film closes with a lively summer cricket match between the asylum (patients and workers) and the town.


A visually beautiful film, based on the true story of Bucke's earliest encounter with Whitman. With a focus on the historical tension between physical and emotional methods, it addresses important issues in the history of psychiatry. "Moral treatment" for "moral causes" had already been introduced much earlier in European asylums, but physical methods of restraints and surgeries were still widely used and more were being developed. This film suggests that Whitman's philosophy gave Bucke the courage to implement his progressive ideas in asylum keeping.

The plight of Victorian women is an underlying theme: rebellion against the demands of society is interpreted as illness. An abused mother (Sheila McCarthy) is brought to be cured of wild paranoia so that she can return to her life as a drudge for her husband. Madness may be her escape from beatings and misery; yet, some doctors wish to assault her further by removing her ovaries. Bucke opposes them. His own wife, feeling somewhat neglected, is also counseled to consider the removal of her ovaries.

Years later, Whitman named Bucke as the executor of his estate. For more on Bucke, see S.E.D. Shortt, Victorian Lunacy: Richard M. Bucke and the Practice of Late Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Primary Source

C/FP Video