Review: ‘Asylum’

A proper British wife, chafing from boredom and frustration at her husband's psychiatric hospital in northern England, succumbs to bottled-up passions with a patient and ruins everyone's lives in overly plotted erotic drama "Asylum." Pic will probably play hotter elsewhere, with strong ancillary based on subject and cast.

A proper British wife, chafing from boredom and frustration at her husband’s psychiatric hospital in northern England, succumbs to bottled-up passions with a patient and ruins everyone’s lives in overly plotted erotic drama “Asylum.” Much anticipated teaming of “Young Adam” helmer David Mackenzie with “Closer” playwright Patrick Marber, working from a novel by “Spider” author Patrick McGrath, yields decidedly mixed results. Planned Stateside rollout in early March will attract fans of this sort of thing, but project certainly won’t set prurient tongues wagging the way “Young Adam” and “Closer” have. Pic will probably play hotter elsewhere, with strong ancillary based on subject and cast.

It’s 1959, and a power struggle at the imposing titular institution has resulted in superintendent Straffen (Joss Ackland) passing over bachelor administrator Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) in favor of new hire Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). Arriving with wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and son Charlie (Gus Lewis), the controlling Max makes it immediately apparent that whatever fondness existed between him and the sullen Stella is long gone.

While working in the garden one day to stave off boredom, Stella meets patient Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who has befriended Charlie in the course of refurbishing the gone-to-seed greenhouse. Handsome and haunted, Edgar’s an artist who suffers from severe personality disorders with flashes of morbid jealousy. Oh, and he also, in a fit of rage, beat his wife to death with a hammer, cut off her head and gouged out her eyes.

Of course it’s lust at first sight for Stella and Edgar, and after dancing together primly at the patient-staff ball, she determinedly applies lipstick and marches down to the greenhouse where the two have wordless, intense, R-rated sex. A brisk montage illustrates how Stella balances the two extremes of her new double life.

Though dark clouds gather rapidly and rather obviously, to roughly the 40-minute mark pic has laid out provocative treatises involving gradations of control and the gravitational pull of lust. But as story rushes through each complexity, cumulative effect is one of breathless confusion: Charlie spies Edgar sneaking out of Stella’s bedroom, Edgar escapes, Max is fired in disgrace, and Stella joins the fugitive in London. Meanwhile, Edgar is prone to bouts of jealous rage and beats his assistant Nick (Sean Harris) at the smallest provocation. Some at Berlin fest preem saw it as a multileveled treatise on control and lust, while others found it as stiff as the British upper lips on display.

Production has been as lengthy and chaotic as the story. Liam Neeson was set at one point to star alongside real-life spouse Richardson, and Stephen King took a shot at an apparently very different draft that wasn’t used. Pic finally wrapped in mid-October 2003, and some 20 minutes of footage have reportedly been excised from the original cut. Telltale signs of these changes remain: Marber now shares the scribe credit, as does editor Colin Monie, while pic’s fast pace comes at the expense of scenes such as Edgar and Charlie’s bonding; Nick’s eventual fate; and more of Cleaves’ motivation, which would have anchored the story’s elusive logic via a more detailed plotline.

Absent the kind of fearless sex that could have drawn the crowds, Richardson and Csokas are left to emote various degrees of coiled and smoldering, respectively. McKellen seems increasingly aware of just how out of left field his doctor’s final revelations are, while Bonneville is once again fine in his second film in two days of Berlin competish, following Regis Wargnier’s “Man to Man.” The widescreen lensing of Giles Nuttgens, cinematographer of “Young Adam,” leads the impressive tech package. Pic was shot in and around the since-shuttered Royds facility in northern England.




A Paramount Classics, Seven Arts Pictures release of a Paramount Classics (in the U.S.), Momentum (in the U.K.) release of a Seven Arts Pictures (U.K.), Samson Films (Ireland), Mace Neufeld Prods. (U.S.) production. (International sales: Seven Arts Pictures, London.) Produced by Laurence Borg, David E. Allen, Mace Neufeld. Executive producers, Michael Barlow, Natasha Richardson, Robert Rehme, Baron Davis, Steven Markoff, Bruce McNall, Chris Curling, Harmon Kaslow, John Buchanan. Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay, Patrick Marber, Chrys Balis, from the novel by Patrick McGrath.


Camera (color, widescreen), Giles Nuttgens; editors, Colin Monie, Steven Weisberg; music, Mark Mancina; production designer, Laurence Dorman; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; sound (Dolby Digital), Brendan Deasy; assistant director, Peter Agnew; co-producer, David Collins. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2005. Running time: 96 MIN.


Stella Raphael - Natasha Richardson Dr. Peter Cleave - Ian McKellen Edgar Stark - Marton Csokas Max Raphael - Hugh Bonneville Brenda Raphael - Judy Parfitt Nick - Sean Harris Charlie - Gus Lewis Mrs. Straffen - Wanda Ventham Dr. Jack Straffen - Joss Ackland

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