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Set in 1950's England, Asylum, a tale of erotic obsession, tells the story of Stella Raphael, a restless, beautiful woman who desperately desires to find in romantic love the one thing that will change everything. When her husband Max, an ambitious forensic psychiatrist becomes superintendent of a hospital for the criminally insane, Stella and her young son come with him to live on the grounds. Being in proximity of madness has a dangerous attraction for this woman; with its eerie, gothic beauty and endless echoing corridors, the institution itself seem to draw Stella in.
Asylum stars Natasha Richardson in an unsettling psychological thriller about the repressed, 1950s wife of a psychiatrist (Hugh Bonneville) and her affair with a convicted killer (Marton Csokas). Stella (Richardson), Max (Bonneville), and their son Charlie (Gus Lewis, who played the young Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond) move to a high-security psychiatric hospital, where the priggish Max joins the staff and hopes to ascend, in time, to the top spot, replacing the soon-to-retire hospital director (Joss Ackland). Standing in Max's way is another doctor, Cleave (Ian McKellen), who takes a quiet yet somehow sinister interest in unhappy Stella's apparent attraction to Edgar (Csokas), a connection that will lead to more than one sorrowful end. Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath (who adapted his own Spider into the screenplay for David Cronenberg's 2002 film), Asylum is directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam) with a subtle but growing apprehension of manipulated destiny in Cleave's hands. (It's hard not to think of Cleave as a villainous puppetmaster in Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse universe.) There are times when one might be tempted to dismiss Asylum as too opaque in its explanation for why Stella does the often wretched things she does. But patience is well rewarded: It takes full running time of the movie for the story's complete design to become clear. --Tom Keogh
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One of Peter's patients is Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who is assigned the task of rebuilding a gardener's shed that Stella wants to use. When Charlie, desperate for attention and some form of friendship, develops a relationship with Edgar, which has Stella concerned. When something happens to Charlie, she assumes Edgar is responsible, and when that turns out not to be the case, her feelings for Edgar turn into something else. The next thing we know, every opportunity she can find, Stella is stealing away to the shed for bouts of intense sex with Edgar. Stella never articulates her reasoning for this affair and we are left to piece together our own thoughts by looking at her relationships with her husband and son, the life she is forced to live at the asylum, and the mysterious stranger who wants her. Even when she finds out why he is in the asylum, it does not matter because her obsession is complete.
"Asylum" is not a love story, but rather a descent into Hell, and we can take comfort in knowing that Stella is beyond the pale so that we do not have to bring the grace of God into the equation. At some point it will be clear to you that Stella's character has no desire for redemption and you may well decide she does not deserve it anyway. Plus there is the question of how much Cleave is responsible for what happens. From the start of this 2005 film I was nervous about what McKellan's character was up to, and while I think he would claim more credit for events than is his due, I do not for a second believe his hands are clean. But this is really clearly Richardson's film, and I swear that she says virtually nothing in scene after scene. Every pivotal moment for her character is a look rather than a line of dialogue, because what she does from start to finish is more revealing than anything she ever says, and while we are riveted by the performance.
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.
So basically we have a story about love that turns into obsession that turns, literally, into insanity, a theme I am quite intrigued with and that was explored certainly to surprising degrees here. The movie wastes no time in foreshadowing all the events that will happen, along with making quite clear in the first few moments of screentime that yes, in fact, Stella is a de facto inmate of the asylum. So while it wouldn't necessarily be subtle--in fact seeming to race ahead at moments when one expects the exposition to be more gradual--it still contains a vested interest in showing just how hard it can be sometimes to separate desire from insanity.
And maybe, to a degree, it's so blatantly three-act, and follows a sense of rigid literature that it is somewhat cliched in its structure, but for that it can still be enjoyed as a theatre, to sit back and focus more on the acting and just how the story progresses, not where it's going to progress which should be quite obvious to any viewer from the beginning.
The time is the 1950s, and the place is a mental institution in the outskirts of London where Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) brings his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and young son Charlie (Gus Lewis) to begin his tenure as a psychologist. The asylum is dark, dank, and foreboding, a place where the wives of the doctors are expected to behave and be bored at silly conclaves and teas, all lead by the director Jack (Joss Ackland) and his stuffy wife Bridie (Wanda Ventham). The sinister Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) observes the new couple with suspicion, as they are his 'competition' in the ascendancy of director. Peter is coldly genial and concerns himself only with his 'pet patient' Edgar (Marton Csokas), a handsome but dark sculptor who is institutionalized for brutally murdering and dismembering his wife and for whom Peter appears to have a sexual attraction.
In no time Stella is bored, not even able to assist her maid Mrs. Rose (Sara Thurston) in household chores. Stella sees Edgar and an attraction is mutually palpable, and soon enough they begin acting out their frustrated prolonged lust in the greenhouse Edgar is renovating. Peter and the other staff expect the affair, but when circumstances surface Max's ready embarrassment at his wife's behavior explodes. Edgar escapes the asylum to live with his old friend Nick (Sean Harris) and before long Stella discovers his whereabouts in London and begins assignations there under the guise of shopping trips. Ultimately she responds to Edgar's demands to leave her family and live with him, all the while watching Edgar plunge into the same mental state that preceded the murder of his wife. Peter relentlessly seeks out the couple, finds them and returns Stella to her husband who has been fired from his job because of her dalliances. They move to North Wales to a meager life, Edgar follows, and before long the couple reunites with disastrous results. Stella's mind is broken and she tacitly sits and watches her son drown, and as a result she is returned to the asylum as a patient. The ending is bleak and somewhat unexpected and ties the story of love abnormally focused to a circular closure.
Filmed in atmospheric dark tones by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens the story's mood remains grim. The cast is excellent with most of the honors going to Ian McKellen in one of his usual highly nuanced performances. Natasha Richardson is believable as the tortured Stella and Hugh Bonneville is aptly cold and distant. Marton Csokas finds the dark interior of Edgar and is understandably the source of attraction for both Stella and Peter. The director David Mackenzie ('Young Adam') needed to pay more attention to the editing, a problem that makes this tale of downfall choppy and disjointed. Otherwise 'Asylum' is a suspenseful, tragic story of the asylums people create for themselves. But oh, for the poetry of Patrick McGrath... Recommended. Grady Harp, January 06
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