Film-Forward Review: [ASYLUM]

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Natasha Richardson as Stella Raphael
Photo: Colm Hogan

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Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Produced by: Laurence Borg & David E. Allen & Mace Neufeld.
Written by: Patrick Marber & Chrysanthy Balis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath.
Director of Photography: Giles Nuttgens.
Edited by: Colin Monie & Steve Weisberg.
Music by: Mark Mancina.
Released by: Paramount Classics.
Country of Origin: UK. 90 min. Rated: R.
With: Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas, Hugh Bonneville & Jeremiah Lewis.

Old mental hospitals lend themselves to movies, with lethargic patients shuffling through dark hallways and elegant doctors performing draconian procedures. Set in 1959, Asylum's atmospheric institution is a looming stone structure isolated in the English countryside, full of criminals with psychiatric disorders. Throw in a dysfunctional married couple and some graphic extramarital sex, and you have a captivating, but not entirely convincing drama exploring the power of desire. It’s based on a book by Patrick McGrath; as a child, McGrath lived on the grounds of England's Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where his father was the chief medical officer.

Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson), an upper-class Englishwoman, moves with her workaholic husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), and young son into a staff house at a high-security facility in Yorkshire, where Max is the new deputy superintendent. Stella tries to fit in with the other staff wives by attending teas and tending the garden. But she and her husband don't talk; she's left unfulfilled and empty inside. Enter Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), an artist institutionalized for killing his wife. The pet patient of senior physician Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), Edgar’s mental health has improved, and he is allowed to work on the hospital grounds. While repairing the Raphaels’ greenhouse, Edgar and Stella fall quickly in lust.

With the threat of Stella and Edgar being caught and he being such a loose cannon, Asylum is full of twists and turns with an unpredictable ending. McKellen is excellent as the sophisticated, but creepy head doctor who never married and lives vicariously through his patients' love lives. And though Stella says little, the audience knows exactly what she's feeling during the entire film, thanks to Richardson’s empathetic performance. However, the lovers share little dialogue; their only apparent connection is physical. Their bond just doesn't feel powerful enough to move a loving, devoted mother to even consider abandoning her only child. Deborah Lynn Blumberg
August 12, 2005



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