Stories about asylums tend to be about dark, brooding and frightening places, and Asylum is no different. Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, the movie is set in 1950s England in an aging high-security mental hospital of gothic design. While the impressive site in Yorkshire fits the bill -- it’s patterned after the Broadmoor mental institution -- of a place no one would want to go to, this film is really a love story.
Forensic psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) has just been hired at a hospital for the criminally insane and moved his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and son Charlie (Gus Lewis) into their quarters. Max is shown the ropes by superintendent Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland) and learns that Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) believed he was next in line for Max’s job. Although Cleave welcomes Max to the asylum, his acrimony toward the man rests just beneath a veneer of politeness.
In the first days as Max settles into his job, it’s quickly apparent that he and Stella’s marriage is not a happy one. With little to do other than keep an eye on Charlie, Stella begins to explore the grounds. She meets the eerie Dr. Cleave, who wants to become her confidant and enthralls her with gossip about the asylum, its caretakers and inhabitants.
Some of the recovering patients are given duties around the property, one of which is to repair the Raphael’s broken down greenhouse. The job falls to inmate Edgar Starks (Marton Csokas), a former sculptor confined for beheading his wife during a jealous rage. Starks soon befriends Charlie, who has no one else around to play with. One day Edgar happens by and Charlie introduces him to his mother. Stella is immediately drawn to his physical stature, and their eyes lock as if they have been intimate lovers for years.
Stella goes to Dr. Cleave with questions about Edgar. He boasts about his work with Edgar and assures her that Charlie is safe around him. Soon Stella is making almost daily trips by the greenhouse as she does her gardening. When she steps into the small space where Edgar is working one day, they can no longer deny their lust for each other and he takes her right there in the corner -- with other inmates only yards away.
Stella and Edgar’s passion ignites into a full-blown affair, both blatantly disregarding that they have each crossed forbidden boundaries. Cleave, always keeping his most prized patient under a watchful eye, notices that Stella and Edgar seem to have something going on. This is particularity noticeable during the annual Patient’s Ball (which seems totally unbelievable in a high-security mental asylum). Ignored by her husband, Stella stands waiting in the midst of patients and doctors, her eyes locked on the entrance. When Edgar finally enters he makes a beeline for the only woman in a very low-cut gown, draws Stella into his arms, and the couple dance so closely a breath of air could not pass between them. Oddly Cleave is the only one to notice this and soon it’s apparent that he is jealous of Stella.
The love affair continues to escalate, even taking place in Stella and Max’s bedroom. When Edgar learns that Cleave has no intention of letting him go free no mater what his recovery, he decides to make a break. He convinces Stella to leave Max, assuring her they will return for Charlie. She smuggles Edgar out and he finds shelter with his former assistant Nick (Sean Harris) in a deserted and run-down building. After making several trips to see Edgar -- described to Max as shopping sprees -- Stella finally decides she can no longer be away from the man she loves. After one such trip, she never returns home.
While I found the setting of Asylum somewhat distracting, the cast of the film quickly changed my perception and pulled me into the story. Foremost is Marton Csokas, who although he’s had roles in The Kingdom of Heaven and The Bourne Supremacy is still not a major presence in the Hollywood spotlight. His performance in Asylum is amazing. He takes command of every scene presenting a fervent hunger for Stella that radiates whenever they are in the same room together. Yet when facing Cleave, the very man who could set him free, there is a subtleness that disappears in an instance in scenes where he becomes so out of control he attacks Stella viciously. Csokas handles all of these characters arcs with the efficiency of a seasoned performer.
Richardson, who served as an executive producer on the film, is also excellent in her role here. At one time Asylum was planned to be a film for her and her mate, Liam Neeson, to do together. When his schedule didn’t allow for that, she moved forward with the project. “I could write a book about what we had to go through to get this film made,” said Richardson. “It doesn’t happen very often in a lifetime that you read something and you think ‘this is me; I can connect with this in a way that no one else could.’ I just couldn’t let it go.”
McKellen, a fine actor who becomes any character he takes on, zones in on the deviousness of Dr. Cleave so cleverly it brings chills to the observer. “Dr. Cleave is a character who presents himself as a kind of benign entity and we slowly start to see from the details that he might not be quite so benign after all,” said Director David MacKenzie (Young Adam).
Asylum is a film that enthralls and entertains while at the same time raising the hairs on the back of your neck.
(Released by Paramount Classics and rated “R” for strong sexuality, some violence and brief language.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.