starring Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Gus Lewis
screenplay by Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath
directed by David Mackenzie
by Walter Chaw Director David Mackenzie's follow-up to his stygian Young Adam is the stygian Asylum, based on a Patrick McGrath (Spider) novel that draws, again, upon a young McGrath's experiences as the son of the medical superintendent for Britain's Broadmoor Prison for the Criminally Insane during the late-1950s, when Freudian analysis was the rule and sway. ("Axe murderers and schizophrenics were my pram pushers," McGrath says.) Moments of sun in the picture--shot all in greens and shadow--are illusions within the walls of the asylum to which new administrator Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) have arrived, a pale yellow glow indicating a path to right reason and an unnatural dusk leading down a hall to madness and bedlam. It is what the provocatively-named head shrink Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen) would refer to as a "problem with passion," and as part of their first, vaguely flirtatious meeting, Stella will ask Cleave if he's so afflicted. Pinched silence is the answer--and by the end, once Dr. Cleave has shown how a lack of passion has twisted his interiors, it becomes clear that silence is perhaps the best answer to questions of the heart.
Trapped in a loveless marriage to a heatless bureaucrat, Stella finds some of her lost ardour rekindled in the presence of an inmate, Edgar (Marton Csokas), enlisted in the privilege of restoring the glass to a shattered arboretum, his manual labour as good a physical metaphor as any for the restructuring of Stella's brittle libido. (A circle of significance closed when Stella destroys a glass house at film's end.) The fear of discovery lends urgency to their furtive couplings, and Stella seems only encouraged by the revelation that Edgar's crime was the murder and mutilation of an inconstant bride. He escapes, she's blamed, her husband's career is on the line, and then there's the problem of Stella and Max's young son, Charlie (Gus Lewis, who played the young Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins), caught as he is in Dr. Cleave's problem of passion while mommy leaves one life behind, transformed, perhaps transfixed.
That's the rub of Asylum, which trips along the tension between madness and sanity and traces how passion can erode the line between them to inconsequence. Water is, as it was in Young Adam, the image with currency in the film, as Mackenzie uses it baptismally to represent irrevocable change, or in a modernist sense as that thing which separates one extreme from the other. Yet, as it goes, there's not all that much to Asylum beyond its quartet of exceptional performances and Mackenzie's gift for moods and landscapes (a conversation we'll have again with Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener). It's a fabulous gothic fairytale complete with mad scientist, unimaginable betrayals, Vertigo clock towers, false idols, tortured artists, ravishing maidens fair, crumbling castle and grounds, and a gallery of raving grotesques capering about at the lavishly-outfitted annual inmate ball. And it's a self-contained story told with self-conscious style that just happens to boast a career-best turn by Richardson (who's never been more ravishing) and additional evidence that if Mackenzie hasn't demonstrated much range in his first two films, he's at least laying the groundwork for an oeuvre that may bear more robust fruit a few pictures down the road. Originally published: August 24, 2005.