Starring: Natasha Richardson, Hugh Bonneville, Gus Lewis, Ian McKellen, Joss Ackland. Rated R.
Natasha Richardson’s Stella,
the despondent British housewife at the center of Asylum, is the very personification of loneliness, caught
in the throes of marital discontent and yearning for passion. Her life is
dreary and mired in routine: After moving to a home within the bounds of a
mental institution with her psychiatrist husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), and
their 10-year-old son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), she smokes her cigarettes and tends
to her garden, oblivious to others, even those closest to her. She is trapped
in a state of self-imposed isolation, her spirit deadened by neglect.
comes as little surprise,
then, that she takes an interest in Edgar (Marton Csokas), a ruggedly handsome
mental patient who is mysterious, sullen and deadly. Having been
institutionalized for decapitating his wife, Edgar has spent years under the
dubious care of Cleave (Ian McKellan), a psychiatrist with a devilish glint in
his eyes. Now, however improbably, he is free to roam the nearby countryside,
and it is there that he meets Stella. Misery loves company -- especially when
that company has a killer body and a low-cut neckline -- so when Stella and
Edgar find themselves locked in a sensual embrace during the annual
patient-staff dance, the torrid affair that follows is not at all shocking.
Asylum, directed by David
Mackenzie and based on a novel by
Patrick McGrath, presents a stark, effective portrait of one woman’s struggle
against the oppression of her marriage. She rediscovers some kind of passion in
her otherwise joyless trysts, and her life as an adulteress is liberating: At
long last, she can openly embrace her sexuality, a practice frowned upon in
1950’s England. Yet Richardson’s joylessness, as mirrored in her relentlessly
mopey demeanor, is contagious.
McGrath, himself the son of
a superintended of Broadmoor, a British home for the criminally insane, has
created a dreary, humorless atmosphere, undoubtedly based on some personal
experience. His tale of misguided love and perverse behavior set against a dry,
clinical background is disturbing at times, and it works nicely as a critique
of the so-called experts in charge of the institution. But it is often
inaccessibly bleak, and the only one having any fun seems to be McKellan, whose
devious doctor injects the slightest bit of life into the proceedings.