"Asylum": The madness of love
Seattle Times movie critic
An elegantly overwrought potboiler decked out in William Morris wallpaper, "Asylum" emerges as a competent exercise in atmospheric bosom-heaving, if not plausible storytelling. Natasha Richardson, accessorized by an ever-present cigarette, plays Stella Raphael, the wife of Max (Hugh Bonneville), the newly appointed superintendent of a psychiatric hospital in the English countryside. It is 1959. Stella doesn't fit in among the other doctors' wives; she's slim and chic, wears solid colors rather than floral prints and smokes rather than chats at social gatherings.
Oh, and she's also got a little thing for an inmate, Edgar (Marton Csokas), who's in for murdering his wife a few years ago. Quicker than you can raise an eyebrow, the two of them are having rather uncomfortable-looking sex on the asylum greenhouse's cobblestone floor. It's Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper, with a little mental illness tossed in.
This can, of course, only end in tears, and I'm not just talking about the wear and tear on the cobblestones. What with all the sniffing around by Stella's nosy mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) and the strange fascination that Edgar holds for Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen, elegantly calm as always), the lovers are eventually suspected, and Stella's life becomes a strange hybrid of proper '50s wife and on-the-lam moll. Drama ensues, tragedy follows and lots of cigarettes get smoked.
The film, directed by David Mackenzie (from Patrick McGrath's 1996 novel), is unrelentingly bleak; it's nearly always raining at the asylum, and the buildings are gloomy and ponderous (as, of course, remote psychiatric asylums in movies should be). And though the actors do their best, this story's deck is too obviously stacked. Max is such a career-focused, dreary twit, you wonder it took Stella this long to look elsewhere — it's unimaginable that this husband and wife could ever have been happy together. And the film's final third drowns in its own plot, with the characters' motives (particularly McKellen's) becoming increasingly muddy.
There's a chilly loveliness to the gray-toned cinematography (by Gilles Nuttgens), and Richardson in particular throws herself into her role; her Stella is a carefully controlled arrow of passion looking for a target to hit, and she's not quite bright enough to choose that target wisely. "Asylum" tells a familiar star-crossed-lovers tale, and does so with some skill; but when it's over, you're relieved to emerge into the sun once more.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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