Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, and Marton Csokas in Asylum (2005)


(director: David Mackenzie; screenwriters: from the novel by Patrick McGrath/Patrick Marber/Chrysanthy Balis; cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens; editors: Colin Monie/Steven Weisberg; music: Mark Mancina; cast: Natasha Richardson (Stella Raphael), Ian McKellen (Dr. Peter Cleave), Marton Csokas (Edgar Stark), Hugh Bonneville (Max Raphael), Judy Parfitt (Brenda Raphael), Gus Lewis (Charlie Raphael), Joss Ackland (Jack Straffen), Robert Willox (Archer), Sean Harris (Nick); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Laurence Borg/David E. Allen/Mace Neufeld; Paramount Classics; 2005-Ireland/UK)

“A troubling psychological drama about illicit passion leading to tragedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Mackenzie’s (“Young Adam”) Asylum is adapted from a book by Spider novelist Patrick McGrath; it’s set in the 1950s in a maximum-security asylum for the criminally insane. Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis are the screenwriters who have done justice to the book, but could have done more for the film if they let things get a little more nutty and lurid–at no time do we see sparks fly between the crazed heroine and her dark lover. It’s a troubling psychological drama about illicit passion leading to tragedy, that is formally presented as if it were an elegant Masterpiece Theatre presentation but in reality has nothing more up its sleeve than a tear-jerker Hollywood melodrama.

Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed deputy director of the depressing looking rural asylum just outside London. He lives on the grounds with his unhappy wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and resolute 10-year-old son Charlie (Gus Lewis). Max’s a workaholic career-minded man locked into a loveless marriage, who talks coldly to his wife and lives only for a promotion. He’s so uptight, that the one time we see him in the bedroom at night with his wife he’s dressed in a suit and tie. Stella soon falls madly in love with an inmate, Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a sculptor who is being treated by Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), the asylum’s longest tenured staffer who is still bristling he was passed over for this position. Peter vouches that Edgar is considered a safe risk to work outside repairing the greenhouse, even though he’s been incarcerated for the last six years for the brutal murder of his wife whom he bludgeoned to death and then cut off her head in a fit of jealousy. Despite realizing the danger and consequences if caught, Stella continues the affair. When Edgar escapes, Stella can’t help seeing him in London. Her affair soon becomes common knowledge and plays into the hands of the ambitious Peter, who gets the coveted post held by the retiring elderly director (Joss Ackland) and promptly cans Max.

The melodramatics flow in a chilling manner but they seem so stiff and artificial, as if drained of all the passion in favor of a clinical presentation. Though the ensemble cast deliver fine performances, especially by a sinister Ian McKellen and Natasha Richardson as a stifled woman burning with passion from within, it’s not enough to make this morbid film come to life. It aims to serve not only as an obsessive love story but to point its finger at the so-called rational mental health servers who have such power over determining who is sane and who is insane, yet it seems only effective in stating that Natasha made bad choices in men and led a self-destructive life.