Asylum Movie Review
A mid-20th-century bodice-ripper about sexual obsession and questionable sanity, "Asylum" doesn't live up to its admirable pedigree.
Adapted by Patrick Marber ("Closer") from a novel by Patrick McGrath ("Spider"), directed by David Mackenzie ("Young Adam") and featuring a stellar cast of gifted British actors, the film has yearning and buttoned-down 1950s atmosphere to spare, but fails to turn its foolish heroine into an empathetic or understandable character.
Natasha Richardson plays Stella, a restless woman whose polite, passionless marriage begets dangerous ennui when her husband (Hugh Bonneville) takes a post as deputy director of a psychiatric hospital in rural England. Feeling trapped on the hospital grounds and uncomfortable in the clique-ish sewing circle of doctors' wives, she begins a heated affair with an outwardly stable inmate and former sculptor named Edgar (Marton Csokas, "The Bourne Supremacy") who works as a groundskeeper and has befriended her young son.
The fact that he brutally murdered his wife over a perceived betrayal doesn't seem even to give her pause. Although aggressiveness, jealousy and anger boil just below his barely placid exterior, Stella forges on -- to the detriment of her family and her own sanity -- even after Edgar escapes and takes up residence in an abandoned London warehouse.
Soon she's scared, tired, isolated, and lonely, and without treatment Edgar's psychoses are popping out all over -- so predictably, things go from bad to worse to tragic.
Richardson finds emotional authenticity in Stella's downward spiral, but it's hard to identify with a woman who would value an affair with a wife-butchering nutcase over her responsibilities as mother, let alone feel sorry for her when her lover turns more and more irrational and easily enraged. (Csokas does a perfectly chilling slow burn in the weeks that follow his character's escape.)
But the film's larger problem is that while it has plenty of tension, Stella's wheels are locked in one direction, and waiting for her to careen over an emotional cliff just isn't that interesting. For all Richardson's turmoil, two subtler performances are far more nuanced and distinctive.
Bonneville, in the thankless role of the bamboozled dullard husband, provides a strong unspoken sense that he's always known Stella was likely to stray -- and may have done so before -- but that he's at a complete loss for how he could save their marriage, let alone save her from herself. But Ian McKellan gives the most mesmerizing turn, playing the hospital's sly and manipulative head shrink, an expert in sexual deviancy (for whatever that was worth in the pre-Kinsey era) whose own dodgy predilections percolate behind snake-like eyes and prim, charming mannerisms.
In its last act, "Asylum" builds to what seems like a sudden climax, which packs a real punch, but until then the film and the characters are far more frustrating than fascinating.