Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) is a troubled woman. Repressed and bored, she's the long-suffering wife of a mental hospital's deputy director, Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). It's the late 1950s, and Stella's marriage to Max is a case study in dreariness and boredom. A puritanical psychiatrist, Max treats Stella like she's an undeserving servant, an excess piece of baggage there to fulfill Max's own whims.
Max has just landed an apparently cushy job at a British asylum outside London, and he expects Stella to not only fit in with all the other psychiatrist wives, but also do her best to make sure that his tenure at the hospital is made permanent. Their young son Charlie (Gus Lewis) gives Stella much pleasure, but there's still something missing in her life; it's just not enough to spend her days planning parties for the inmates and gossiping with her colleagues.
Her redeemer comes in the form of the enigmatic loony hunk Edgar (Marton Csokas), a sexy, handsome, brooding brute of a sculptor who once decapitated his wife for seeing other men. At first, Edgar helps Stella in her household chores, and becomes a playmate to young Charlie, but before long Stella is putting fresh lipstick on, swigging back the scotch for courage, and searching Edgar out for afternoon trysts in the rundown green house with hospital guards or family only scant hidden yards away.
The physical encounters are raw and sexual, with both of them unleashing all their bottled up frustrations and desires. Soon they are falling in love, both perhaps unaware that the affair can lead nowhere. Their fanatical obsession for one another soon gets the better of them, with Stella contemplating leaving her husband and child, while Edgar manages to escape, seeking refuge in the back alleyways of London.
Director, David MacKenzie follows Edgar and Stella as they progress in their affair that is so unlikely, but so well executed that it defies disbelief. Stella is formidably determined to attach herself to Edgar even though it means the end of her marriage, her relationship with her son, and her middle-class privileged life. But her nemesis ultimately comes in the form of Peter Cleave (Ian McKellan) a callous, snooping, and cleverly manipulative hospital administrator, who's on to Stella's affair with Edgar.
Stella's grim resolve to hook up with Edgar always seems to manifest itself at the wrong time and usually with the worse results, as she consciously embarks on a path of self destruction. Edgar is bad news, and Peter Cleave warns her about his penchant for violence, but there's little Stella can do to stop her runaway desires for him. She's not an evil person, like the psychopathic Edgar, but her fate ends up being intertwined with the patient rather than Max, who later on reveals that he is not such a bad husband after all.
It is mostly the lovely Natasha Richardson who holds this movie together, as she tries in vein to be the dutiful wife, making a concerted effort to fit in, trying to extract a like-minded conformity, when all she really wants to do is cut loose and act out her inner sexual fantasies, involving sordid quickies with her new found love on the floor amongst the broken glass of the tumbling down hot house.
Based on the book by Patrick McGrath, the film is well acted - particularly by the hunky Csokas, as the brooding and virile Edgar - and it's tightly directed, but it doesn't totally capture the furtive and darkly psychological nature of its source material. Whilst the film is no doubt compelling, and some of it is down right hot, the lust is sometimes overwrought and the passion dynamics often contrived and it all ends up coming across as something resembling psychosexual Harlequin romance, It's like an entertaining and darkly ironic potboiler melodrama, with a lunatic hunk at its center. Mike Leonard January 06.