Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Where other novels by Patrick McGrath (The Grotesque, Spider) have been turned into films, with Asylum it is as if the writer were returning home. As a psychiatrist's son, McGrath spent much of his childhood living at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum (as it was then known), where rumours of an affair between a doctor's wife and a patient formed the inspiration for his novel.

Although the screenplay was adapted, not by the author himself, but by Patrick Marber (Closer), McGrath has kept a keen interest in the project and can even be seen in the background playing an inmate at the annual patients' ball. The setting, amidst the stifling drabness of Fifties Britain, and even a tragic drowning incident, is already familiar from director David Mackenzie's previous film, Young Adam, but what is new this time is McGrath's preoccupation with the shifting boundaries between sanity and madness, forming the film's central theme as ambition, jealousy and love are pushed beyond the limits of reason.

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It is 1959. Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) and her young son Charlie (Gus Lewis) move into the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, where the longest serving member of staff, Dr Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), has just been beaten to a senior post by Stella's husband Max (Hugh Bonneville). With the ever-ambitious Max jockeying to become the hospital's next superintendent, Stella finds refuge from boredom and neglect in the arms of Cleave's "pet patient" (Marton Csokas) - a passionate sculptor, put away for murdering his wife. As the two take ever-greater risks to be together, both inside and outside the asylum, their amour fou engenders treachery and tragedy on all sides.

The hallways and staircases resonate with a Gothic mood of entrapment. Stella is in thrall, not only to her own irresistible infatuation, but also to a loveless marriage, the repressive conventions of the times and the Machiavellian politics of those around her. No matter on which side of the asylum walls she finds herself, she seems equally confined and prey to forces beyond her control, as one man seeks to keep her as a trophy wife, another to reduce her to an idealised muse and a third to use her as a pawn in his twisted power games.

Near the beginning, the superintendent of the asylum (Joss Ackland) states that the hospital is a "haven for the confined and confused", adding jokingly that he means the staff and their associates as much as the inmates. And sure enough, so studiously edgy are the performances that one is never quite sure who harbours the darkest pathology. Certainly the film offers a bleak vision of the Fifties, where an outbreak of passion or an artistic impulse would be quickly subjected, like any other madness, to containment.

Asylum is a darkly twisted romance that, once seen, is hard to get out of your mind.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2005
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Infidelity at an institution for the criminally insane.
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Read more Asylum reviews:

Chris ****
Jennie Kermode ****

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Patrick Marber, Chrysanthy Balis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath

Starring: Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Hugh Bonneville, Ian McKellen, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Gus Lewis, Wanda Ventham, Anna Keaveney, Joss Ackland

Year: 2005

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/Ireland


EIFF 2005

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