Judge Michael Rankins isn't crazy about it.
Passion knows no boundaries.
English country sanitariums for the mentally unstable…they're great places to meet hot, hunky wife-killers for torrid sexual encounters.
Or so this film would have you believe.
Facts of the Case
When psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill) lands a supervisory position at an isolated mental hospital, his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson, Maid in Manhattan) is less than thrilled by the prospect of spending her days kaffeeklatching with the wives of the other staff members. Stella's marriage offers little hope for excitement in this forbidding place. A typical conversation between Dr. and Mrs. Raphael proceeds in sardonically clipped fashion:
Max: "Interesting dress."
What does thrill Stella? The brooding virility of Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy), a sculptor institutionalized for murdering his wife in a jealous pique, and coincidentally (or perhaps not), the patient assigned to renovate the Raphaels' greenhouse. Almost from the instant in which their gazes first lock, Stella and Edgar immerse themselves in a passionate clandestine affair. Unbeknownst to the lovers, their trysting is being monitored—perhaps even orchestrated—by the hospital's ghoulish chief physician, Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), who claims to have "a special interest in sexual pathology and its associated catastrophes."
Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth, especially not between a randy and repressed English matron and a homicidal psychopath. As Stella is about to discover, with tragic consequences.
If Douglas Sirk, auteur of such melodramatic potboilers as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation Of Life, were alive and living in England today, he might well have been drawn to Patrick McGrath's dark novel of love and lust among the criminally insane. Inasmuch as Sirk died nearly 20 years ago, the task of bringing Asylum to the screen falls to David Mackenzie, whose previous film, Young Adam, also dealt with the scarier, shadier side of human passion.
The task falls hard.
Part bodice-ripper, part Jack the Ripper, Asylum never decides whether it wants to be a semi-modernized Gothic romance (it's set in the late 1950s) or a suspense thriller. Consequently, it does little justice to either genre.
Asylum's thinly drawn characters are keys to the problem. We learn so little about what goes on inside these people that they become cardboard cutouts shuffled around in service to the plot. As a result, we have a hard time caring about what they do or what happens to them as a consequence. Why is Stella continually drawn to men who are horrendously wrong for her? We never find out. What is Dr. Cleave up to? I was still wondering as the credits rolled. Plus, the characters are so thoroughly unlikable and uninvolving—despite some fine, subtle performances (especially by Natasha Richardson and the always compelling Ian McKellen)—that by the time their story was concluded, I was relieved to be done with them.
Director Mackenzie's fits-and-starts pacing doesn't help matters, either. For a film that runs only 99 minutes, Asylum drags on endlessly. And yet, there are passages that seem almost breathlessly rushed. The affair between Stella and Edgar, for example, begins with such abruptness that we not only don't understand why these two people connect, but we also don't care. In similar fashion, a dramatic twist in the relationship between two of the characters materializes late in the film with so little lead-in that it feels like pages from the script to another movie were crammed in by accident.
On occasion, Mackenzie stumbles upon a semiotic trick that almost works. For example, the only times we see Stella naked are when she's alone in the bath—never with any of the men in her life. And for their part, the actors strain at the bit to bring some dimension to their characters, but find themselves shackled by the often capricious dictates of the script.
Perhaps these elements work together more effectively in the source novel, which I have not read. If so, the fault lies in the screenplay by Patrick Marber (Closer) and Chrysanthy Balis. The novel, I understand, is written from Dr. Cleave's point of view, and therefore may make a certain narrative sense in ways that the film fails to mirror. The story certainly can't be faulted for its predictability—the plot's frequent unanticipated turns form the only engine that keeps the film grinding forward—but the unpredictability is a device that thwarts the viewer's connection with the characters without enriching it. Without drawing us into its personnel, Asylum is simply a dreary (though attractively photographed by Swimfan cinematographer Giles Nuttgens), emotionally shallow muddle.
Paramount's DVD offering shows a similar lack of enthusiasm. No complaints
here with either the video transfer or the audio presentation, both of which are
adequate and technically unassailable, but this film cries out for the context
that a director's commentary or interview with the author might have provided.
We get neither.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Patrick McGrath, who wrote the novel on which Asylum is based, was the son of a doctor who worked in asylums very much like the one portrayed here. One of McGrath's other novels was adapted for the screen by David Cronenberg (Spider). I'm guessing that Patrick McGrath's psyche is a locale I would not much like to visit.
A couple of good performances and pleasant cinematography can't save a weak, meandering script or unsure direction. I didn't mind that the people in Asylum were crazy, only that they were dull.
The Court sentences Asylum to a long rest in an English madhouse, until such time as the disparate elements of its personality merge into a cohesive whole. Until then, we're adjourned.
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