For a big chunk of ASYLUM, Natasha Richardson wears a shade of lipstick that is just a hair’s breadth off of being the right color for her. It’s emblematic of the film as a whole, which misses the mark when it comes to its stated purpose of delving into the madness and mystery of passion.
The passion in question is that which develops between the wife of a resident psychiatrist at an appropriately gothic looking mental institution in the English hinterlands, and one of the resident inmates. She’s Stella Raphael (Richardson), whose evocative name that leads nowhere in the story that I can fathom. She’s bored, unhappy, and chafing under her husband’s mild but persistent disapproval of everything right down to her sartorial choices. He’s Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a dark, handsome, and brooding soul assigned to help rebuild the greenhouse in the Raphael backyard on the asylum grounds. When he’s not there, he’s chafing under the watchful eye of his therapist, Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellan), an expert in sexual psychosis, whose interest in Edgar is more than just professional. This being the early 1960s, no one ever discusses these things. Stella is civil, most of the time, and Cleave (yet another evocative name) is assumed to be married to his work rather than having an unapproved variation on his sexual orientation. As for Edgar, he makes friends with Stella’s son, Charlie (a doughty Augustus Jeremiah Lewis) and then asks Stella to dance at the annual Hospital Ball, where patients and doctors mix to big band music and non-alcoholic punch. As they dance, Edgar involuntarily expresses his attraction to Stella, which doesn’t repulse her when she notices the bulge. A little coy small talk, a bouquet of flowers, and Stella and Edgar are going at it like crazed ferrets with consequences that are melodramatic and overwrought even for that idiom.
The problem lies in the chemistry between Stella and Edgar, that is, the total lack thereof. Their coupling is graceless and without any particular urgency. The passion that Cleves warns about during his first conversation with Stella at the welcome party is nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a sense that Stella is rebelling against the suffocation of her existence and Edgar against the confinement under Cleve’s thumb. Their affair, being the result of their reaction to other people and other circumstances and not to each other leaves the entire premise, that passion leads them to do things beyond reason falls flat, leaving their subsequent actions beyond comprehension.
Richardson, who co-executive produced, is chic and sleek in a thoroughbred way, and just as skittish, but without depth. Csokas, who was so very charismatic in THE GREAT RAID, is here sullen and at most two steps away from total catatonia. McKellan glides through it all sly and slightly dyspeptic. It’s Hugh Bonneville as Stella’s long-suffering husband who, unexpectedly, brings some flesh and blood to this otherwise lifeless offering. His attachment to Stella no matter what she does or how far she falls, whether it be true passion, a sense of responsibility, or something in between is the most palpable emotion on screen and it is played with a fine understatement that is in high and welcome contrast to the vapid histrionics going on around him.
ASYLUM would be a total waste of its lovely cinematography without him, but a far cry from being its saving grace either. It is turgid, trite, and painfully puffed-up with its completely delusional sense of self-importance.