Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellan, Hugh Bonneville, Marton Csokas, Gus Lewis, Sarah Thurston. (2005, R, 99 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 2, 2005
It’s 1960 in the verdant English countryside, but the hills aren’t alive with the sound of anything other than the muffled groanings of soul-stifling sexual repression, erotic and professional obsession, and, ultimately, bloody, sweaty aggression. It might as well be Whitechapel circa 1888, what with the keen edged blades of Psyche and Eros battling it out to see who gets to the flay the heroine first. But the only ripper on hand here is the one that novelist Patrick McGrath, upon whose novel the film is based, finds within us all – or at least those among us lacking socially acceptable avenues of egress for our more disreputable mores. Asylum takes place, for the most part, in one of those grimly fiendish Victorian madhouses where exceedingly proper Oxford-bred physicians study their hopeless charges as though they were inspecting a dinged cuticle, so clinically and emotionally detached is their manner. No one can do clinical detachment (or, I suspect, possesses a better manicure) than Sir Ian McKellan: As resident psychiatrist Dr. Cleave, he’s the sinister shadow that hangs over everything in the film, blotting out hope with a cool, cheerless smile and an air of unspoken disdain that’s as suffocating as a vacuum. When new superintendent Max Raphael (Bonneville) enters into this morbid, exceedingly gothic world, with wife Stella (Richardson) and tyke Charlie (Lewis) in tow, you know instantly that nothing good can come of it. And when a handsome, sturdy former sculptor and current inmate Edgar (Csokas, looking an awful lot like Russell Crowe here) begins making eyes at Stella it’s all but a foregone conclusion that somebody’s going to lose his or her head – or mind. The well-bred propriety of the English upper crust is on full view from all angles in McKenzie’s film – everything is in its right place from the silver service to the hangman’s cravat – but anyone with even a passing interest in McGrath’s novels (in 1995 his novel The Grotesque was released in America under the disastrous title Gentlemen Don’t Eat Poets; Spider was superbly adapted by David Cronenberg in 2002) will immediately detect the festering lunacy roiling beneath the placid surface. "I spend my life immersed in the passions of others," Dr. Cleave tells Stella when she inquires about his marital status, adding "Dangerous sport, love. I’m not quite sure I have the stomach for it." No one does except the truly mad, apparently, as Csokas’ animalistic artist makes abundantly clear. Imprisoned for decapitating his wife while in a jealous rage, he has the strapping, muscled physique of the romantic proletariat, complete with smoldering gaze and barely restrained tempers, and it’s no wonder the good doctor’s wife embarks on a series of greenhouse rutting rendezvous with the tormented artist. It’s a bit of a stretch when they run off together, and a veritable leap of narrative faith when the formerly prim housewife begins to show evidence of her own latent nuttiness, but the delectably atmospheric Asylum remains gothic to its morally maggoty core. Metaphors for contemporary society abound (and not just in the British sense, either), as the film wryly wonders whether the lunatics have taken over not just the asylum but the entire world as well. When they’re as awash in such funereal panache as McKellan, frankly, who the devil cares?