Asylum Movie Review

As cool and chiseled as star Natasha Richardson's face, Asylum (based on a novel by Patrick McGrath) is set for the most part at a high-security insane asylum in northern England in 1959. Richardson plays Stella Raphael, whose husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) has been made deputy superintendent at the hospital, meaning a long spell among the mad and their repressed warders for Stella and their son Charlie (Gus Lewis). At the best of times, Stella seems like she'd have difficulty fitting in, but with her aloof and depressed air, cigarette held high in one hand, martini in the other, she seems downright ogre-ish to the provincial locals. Stella smokes at her kitchen table, asking the maid, "How did my predecessor fill her time?" Consumed with work, Max is hardly any help, and even Charlie doesn't seem able to keep Stella's attention.

At least there's a handsome mental patient who's allowed to work in the grounds near the Raphael's house, giving Stella reason to get up in the morning. For those not as terminally depressed as Stella, it would seem a negative that Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas) had been put in the asylum for butchering his wife; but hey, a girl's got to keep busy. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) and screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) don't waste much of the audience's time before bringing Edgar and Stella together in a brutal coupling in a half-ruined greenhouse that shows, in one simple and uninterrupted shot, more heated passion than a half-dozen other films' frantic editing and sensuous lighting could manage. The heated connection between the two is so believable that all the events which follow from their affair - including, but not limited to, Edgar's escape - and the depths of darkness into which nearly all the characters are plunged, seem nothing less than utterly inevitable.

There are a number of elements in Asylum, though, that strain the credulity so well established by the ensemble's deadly accurate performances, not least being the asylum's senior psychiatrist Peter Cleave (Ian McKellan). Sharp as a dagger and icy cool, the all-controlling Cleave - a little more interested in his patient Edgar than he probably should be - is a deftly entertaining element and just about the only spot of humor (dry though it may be) in the whole affair. But here again, just as with the film's gothic mood and sometimes overheated emotions, Cleave seems almost too stock a creation, enjoyable though he may be.

All actions in this film have consequences, especially so with Stella, who makes horrid decisions time and again, and is punished for them to an almost unbearable extent. In someone else's hands, this story could have too easily turned into just another bad-mother caricature, but Mackenzie and Marber are quite careful to keep the limited options of Stella's world in plain view and never to withdraw the tone of mournful sympathy that seeps throughout. She may have made bad choices, the film seems to be saying, but for women in that society in that time, there was nothing but bad choices.

You're not crazy. Seriously, you're not. We mean it.


Comments

Asylum Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 2005

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