It’s 1960, and Britain is still struggling to escape the austerity of the war. An ambitious young doctor, his bored wife and their young son move to a forbidding asylum. He is focused on career and social position. She desperately seeks any refuge from a life in which she is as much a prisoner as the patients in their barred corridors and padded cells. The boy finds fun where he can.
Soon Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) is embroiled in a passionate but ultimately directionless sexual affair with Edgar, a taciturn, saturnine killer who murdered his wife, cut off her head and gouged her unseeing eyes from their sockets.
Their love affair eventually culminates in his escape, her flight to be with him and the destruction of her husband’s dreams.
Meanwhile the entire episode is observed and recorded by Peter Cleave, the real ruler of the hospital and a man as obsessed with controlling the lives and futures of his colleagues as he is with dominating the limited world of his patients.
Adapted by Patrick Marber from the novel by Patrick McGrath, Asylum has languished on the shelf for more than a year. It’s a telling sign, and hints that the film is not good.
In truth Asylum is far thinner than it should be, and is held together by the fleeting appearances of Ian McKellen as the sexually ambiguous Cleave, who drifts through the fragmented plot linking the various elements via his thirst for power and control. He’s a dangerous puppeteer. And he knows where all the bodies are buried.
McKellen’s problem is that, while he has the most interesting and quietly sinister character, he is underused. The script is at fault here – Cleave is significantly underwritten. What’s his raison d’etre? We never truly find out.
Yet there is a great deal to enjoy. Richardson, taking top billing, reeks of ennui. Early on there is the giveaway comment from her mother-in-law that she may not have behaved herself in her past. Thus it is that her almost immediate attraction and love affair with Edgar (Marton Csokas) is believable.
Director David Mackenzie, the Scots wunderkind behind The Last Great Wilderness and Young Adam, never truly gets a grip of the material and, consequently, it is left to the efforts, energies and emotions of Richardson, Csokas, McKellen and Hugh Bonneville (excellent as a cold, internalised bore) to pep up the action with Machiavellian intrigue, icy fury and rough sex.
Bonneville has the least showy part but scores highly as a bully: intimidating, distant, aloof. Trapped in a lifeless marriage, no wonder she strays.
Shot largely on location at the former Victorian High Royds Hospital in Menston, near Bradford, which receives its own special credit at the film’s end, Asylum is populated with dozens of local ‘background artistes’ in a ballroom dancing sequence.
As in Calendar Girls they will have fun spotting themselves – though this is more about darkness, decay, death and delusion than feelgood humour. It’s uneven and feels more than a little rushed, but the kernel of a gripping tale remains if audiences are patient enough to seek it out.
Star rating: ***