Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville, "Stage Beauty") brings his beautiful wife Stella (Natasha Richardson, "Maid in Manhattan") and their young son Charlie (Gus Lewis, "Batman Begins") to the high security hospital for the criminally insane where he has just landed the prestigious job of Deputy Superintendent. Manipulative tenured senior psychiatrist Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen, "The Lord of the Rings'" Gandalf), who expected the post would go to him, determines an untapped passion in Mrs. Raphael and arranges for his pet patient, the dashingly handsome Edgar (Marton Csokas, "Kingdom of Heaven," "The Great Raid," resembling a gaunt Russell Crowe), to do repairs on the Raphaels' property and, as planned, Edgar becomes Stella's "Asylum."
And, of course, she and her husband's downfall. This film, which plays like "Mrs. Soffel" crossed with "Unfaithful" while being nowhere as good as either, was directed by David Mackenzie ("Young Adam"), who seems to be repeating himself with tales of drownings and murderous men romancing married women with small boys. Like "Young Adam," "Asylum" benefits from the deep, rich cinematography of Giles Nuttgens, who has a knack for visualizing both the dank and lush natures of Great Britain, but the story (Patrick Marber ("Closer") and Chrysanthy Balis adapting Patrick McGrath's ("Spider") novel), despite its thematic attempts, is a load of gothic, bodice-ripping claptrap.
Stella, her heart-shaped faced moued in bored entrapment, immediately visits two places of great later significance - the shattered glass conservatory on the grounds of her home and the split in the wide hospital hallways that segregates the sane from the insane. It's Charlie who calls her attention to Edgar, and Stella's eyes spark with interest from the onset. She's admonished by Max for wearing a revealing black dress to the patients' ball, where Cleave observes her dance with Edgar while Max talks shop with colleagues. Finally, after a minimal amount of interior struggle, Stella dons a Marilynesque white halter dress and bright red lipstick and marches out to that greenhouse and quickly, hungrily consummates her and Edgar's lust-at-first-sight. 'I murdered my wife. She betrayed me,' Edgar whispers to Stella, but the fact that she herself is now betraying a husband is never commented upon.
The arrival of Max's mother (Judy Parfitt, "Girl with a Pearl Earring") has a further stifling effect upon Stella as does Max's attempts to make her conform as a quiet and dutiful wife ('Here's to locking the door and throwing away the key,' she retorts, tossing down a Scotch, after Cleave lightly dismisses Edgar's chance of rehabilitation during a dinner party). Ironically, it is the mother-in-law who is the vehicle of Edgar's escape and Charlie the revealer of his mother's affair and Cleave orchestrates the ensuing scandal to his benefit. Stella secretly visits Edgar in his London artist's loft, having been reunited by Edgar's faithful assistant Nick (Sean Harris, "24 Hour Party People"). Both Max and Cleave are suspicious and when Cleave threatens to 'hold' her at the hospital, Stella accedes to Edgar's demands and abandons her family altogether.
"Asylum" continues for several more acts as the lovers have various obstacles thrown in their path, not the least of which include Edgar's mental state. Max becomes a champion of literary cuckolds while Cleave finds himself finally entangled within his own puppet master's strings. Themes of freedom and imprisonment, self-reflection and madness (amour fou anyone?) are rife throughout. "Asylum" even features a trio of love triangles, Stella and Edgar present in each.
It is surprising that such a lurid, hothouse of a film has drawn such a prestigious cast, although the project may have seemed like a 1950's "Wuthering Heights" on paper. If nothing else, "Asylum" should establish Csokas' brooding sex appeal. Natasha Richardson, drinking and smoking throughout the film, lends Stella a deep, throaty voice and appreciable lust, but she's not a particularly sympathetic heroine, perhaps due to Mackenzie's abrupt, melodramatic direction. Her one, best strike comes with her final line. McKellen enables Cleave with intelligent game-playing, but his final move is lacking in motivational background. (It does provide one of the film's most unintentionally funny lines, however, when Csokas demands 'What would she want with an old queen like you?' of the openly exuberantly uncloseted McKellen.) Best of the leads is Bonneville, keeping us at arms length with his initial, ambitious chill, but gaining sympathy as he reacts to his world unraveling. Judy Parfitt, so effective in "Dolores Claiborne" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring," is reduced here to glowering mother-in-law. Joss Ackland ("K-19: The Widowmaker") adds a dash of fun as the jolly, retiring superintendent who is stunned to find himself having to deal with scandal at the dusk of his career.
"Asylum" is a handsome looking production that goes overboard indulging its romantic excesses. The resulting film boarders on boredom.
Robin did not see this film.
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