Natasha Richardson as Stella
Ian McKellen as Peter Cleave
Hugh Bonneville as Max Raphael
Marton Csokas as Edgar
Joss Ackland as Straffen
Susie Gossling Valerio as Patient
Sean Harris as Nick
Julia Hickman as Patient at Ball
Rhydian Jones as Mr. Griffen
Gus Lewis as Charlie
Judy Parfitt as Brenda Raphael
Wanda Ventham as Mrs. Straffen
Robert Willox as Archer
An intense and haunting drama with four memorable performances, particularly that of Natasha Richardson and Marton Csokas, Asylum may very well be this year’s Vera Drake.
Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, Asylum follows a year in the life of Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson), whose husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) gets a job at an expansive asylum in the north of England under the tutelage of its senior physician Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen). Trapped in a world of subordination, Stella has an affair with Cleave’s patient Edgar (Marton Csokas), a troubled artist who murdered his wife in a jealous rage. It’s an affair that will take them all to the edge of despair. (No, it’s not a comedy.)
Patrick McGrath probably isn’t the easiest author to adapt. His writing is so rich in character and plot developments that it must be hard to make the intricacies of his writing work on film. This may be why when it came to adapting his novel “Spider,” McGrath took it upon himself to write the screenplay, and then it took a visionary like David Cronenberg to realize it on celluloid. It also may be why it took many years and three screenwriters, including Stephen King, to finally realize his novel “Asylum.” It finally came together thanks to a script from noted playwright Patrick Marber (Closer) and the vision of Scottish director David McKenzie, who’s no stranger to difficult adaptations, having helmed last year’s Young Adam. Dealing with adultery and infidelities, jealousy, madness and obsession, Asylum is a very dark film following the year in the life of four people whose personal demons keep getting tangled up in their already unhealthy relationships.
It all starts innocently enough with a garden party to celebrate the arrival of the asylum’s new doctor, his wife Stella and their son Charlie. The institution’s main physician Dr. Cleave, played with subtle menace by Ian McKellen, immediately shows an interest in Stella, but she’s more intrigued by his patient Edgar, whose progress has allowed him to become the asylum’s groundskeeper and handyman. A friendship between the two quickly turns to passion, and Stella is soon sneaking out to the gardens to see Edgar any chance she gets. Most of the asylum’s residents including Cleave suspect something going on between them, and when Edgar escapes from the institution, Stella follows him to London, leaving her husband and son behind. Bringing new meaning to the term “insanely jealous”, Edgar starts resorting to his violent and out-of-control behavior for which he was institutionalized, but Stella sticks by him until an intervention by Cleave and her husband.
That’s all you really need to know about the plot because to divulge anything beyond the basics wouldn’t do the story justice. The brilliance in the film, and presumably McGrath’s novel, is how the complex relationship between four people evolves over the course of a year. Marber’s script is quite fantastic, but it’s even more impressive how David McKenzie allows the passage of time to flow through the film. So much happens over the course of Stella’s journey that you don’t even realize that literally weeks and months pass in between scenes. Somehow, the intricate plot developments are fairly fluid, insuring that the film never get as dull as similar character dramas tend to get. McKenzie and his director of photography Giles Nuttgens create a haunting shroud over the entire film, although it never diminishes the intensity of the story or the performances.
Some may feel that Asylum is a dreary exercise in tragedy and gloom, but this atmosphere creates a fine showcase for the talents of Natasha Richardson and Marton Csokas, two actors who have rarely had any opportunities to shine like this. Richardson portrays a character with such great depth and an interesting story arc, and she’s glorious in capturing the range of emotions in Stella from love and joy to sorrow and everything in between. Csokas proves himself to be every bit the leading man, as he plays a character that usually would have gone to a much better known actor, and evokes sympathy in what might normally not be a very likeable character.
Hugh Bonneville plays a similar role as he has in other films, but the most impressive part of his performance is his ability to change his physical stature over the course of the film, adding to the realism that time is passing. Of course, McKellen is at his evil best, as he does whatever he can to break up Edgar and Stella, although it isn’t clear until the end what his true intentions are.
Like last year’s shining star, Vera Drake, the prim and proper British setting plays a large part in making this such a compelling character study, as does the era. For some reason, it always seems shocking when you imagine people of the ’50s having affairs, let alone having sex, of which there’s plenty of in Asylum (In that sense, it’s also a bit like Kinsey.) The last twenty minutes of the film goes from one dramatic peak to the next, although it would lessen the impact knowing much about the characters’ outcome beforehand. Either way, it’s fascinating to watch these relationships unfold in a way that is rarely seen in film.
The Bottom Line:
While the dark and often dreary nature of this film certainly won’t appeal to everyone, you can’t deny the strength of this drama due to the amazing performances and its intricate and compelling plot.