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Mad love 'Asylum' is setting for examination of what drives mankind

Love is patient, love is kind, the Bible tells us.

But love, at its darkest, is also jealous, possessive and cruel.

In "Asylum," the complex movie based on Patrick McGrath's novel about the forbidden affair between a psychiatrist's wife and an asylum patient, love is all of those things. And if that simple description makes the movie sound pat or even ridiculous (how crazy is it to get involved with someone who is medically insane, anyhow?), trust that those two characters are only part of the story.

Credit McGrath's original novel and screenwriters Chrysanthy Balis and Patrick Marber for keeping the story and characters compelling -- and honest -- even when the plot takes a misstep or two. Marber previously delved into passion gone wrong in his play (and subsequent screenplay), "Closer."

"Asylum," like "Closer," is about the insanity of love when passion overrides logic and the often disastrous ripple effect it has on other people. Watching this unfold like a train wreck makes "Asylum" fascinating to watch, as do the outstanding performances.

Natasha Richardson is graceful and daring as Stella, the bored and lonely wife of workaholic psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). Ian McKellen slowly unveils the quiet desperation and personal demons of Dr. Cleave, a powerful psychiatrist at the asylum.

Most notably, however, is the performance of Marton Csokas as Edgar Stark, a gifted sculptor incarcerated for the grisly murder of his wife. ("She betrayed me," he softly explains.)

Dark, brooding actors may be easy to find, but Csokas also has emotional depth. (Csokas, ironically, also performed in a stage version of "Closer.") His natural magnetism screams, "Look at me," even when he's lost under a long, blond wig as Celeborn in "The Lord of the Rings" or in one-dimensional bad guy roles in "Timeline" and "XXX."

An underlying theme that things are not as they appear is also riveting. Take, for instance, a ballroom scene where a couple strikes a handsome figure on the dance floor. She's lovely with her fancy updo, elbow-length black gloves and matching gown; he's tall, dark and extremely handsome. Their intense attraction to each other is palpable.

Everyone is watching them -- not because they exude a perfect picture of happiness, but because she's a psychiatrist's wife and he's an asylum patient. This is the annual holiday ball at a maximum security psychiatric asylum outside London, circa 1959, the one time of year when the male and female "patients" can mix and mingle.

The electricity between Stella and Edgar is spontaneous; when their eyes meet, it's as if they transmit all of their pain, loneliness and longing into each other. Though Stella is taken aback by his seering magnetism, it doesn't stop her for long.

Putting on a provocative white halter dress, Stella finds him working in the garden (the fact that many of the patients, even the violent ones, have such freedom is one of the few script problems). Their passion erupts and they're on the ground, clawing at each other, in a matter of seconds. The sex is primal and fast; both are embarrassed by their actions and nervously get up and turn away. But they'll return, again and again, to grab a few minutes together.

Do they have a chance? That's not the point. It would have been easy and predictable -- for this to have simply been a story of forbidden love that slowly builds to its consummation.
Instead, sex is only the foreplay for what happens after the affair becomes public. At that point, love in all of its ugliness claws its way through, and the characters, along with the viewer, are left with the carnage.


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen

DIRECTOR: David MacKenzie

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

RATING: R for strong sexuality, nudity, violence and brief language

THE LOWDOWN: A psychiatrist's wife and asylum patient begin an ill-fated affair.


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