Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Billed as "a skillful chronicle of mad love", this latest adaptation of the work of Patrick McGrath (following David Cronenburg's Spider) is really something quite different. At its heart is the passionate affair which develops between bored psychiatrist's wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and asylum inmate Edgar (Marton Csokas), tearing apart Stella's life; behind the scenes, however, each character is being manipulated in a complex scheme which none of them can see. The unfolding story provides a good balance of visceral action, psychological drama, and mystery.

As in McGrath's previous work, the day-to-day routines of the asylum are fluidly depicted so that the environment becomes almost as influential as the characters. From the very start, the physicality of the characters is presented as an essential part of their identities. Careful choices in lighting and make-up give us characters who seem almost raw, unpolished and the more expressive for it.

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This is clearly tremendously liberating for Richardson, who turns in one of her strongest performances to date, taking full advantage of her challenging role. Perhaps Stella has always been on the brink of madness; she is clearly not the sort of person who can fit into the role which her damaged marriage has provided her with. Husband Max (Hugh Bonneville, on excellent form as an initially unlikeable but sympathetic man suddenly out of his depth) struggles to hold the relationship together, but their differing expectations appear to have been moulded by different social experiences; he is upper class, she passionate about the notion of the artist, the outsider.

When Max's colleague Peter (Ian McKellen, about as far removed from the benevolence of Gandalf as one would care to get) introduces her to a murderer who used to be a sculptor, her reaction is predictable enough. Csokas, in his turn, portrays a man intense but edgy, prone to violent mood swings, with impressive confidence. Their sexual encounters are passionate to the point of brutality, and Stella is not the only one who finds herself vulnerable as a consequence of his overwhelming jealousy.

Anyone who plays strategy games will understand that they develop in phases; such is the case with the story told here, and it is weakest at the points where it links these phases together, seeming at first like a succession of short stories about the same group of people. Its awkward pacing does make sense, but not until the end, so it sometimes drags a little. Emotionally numb characters also present a challenge which it struggles to overcome, its accuracy sometimes a burden.

At other stages, however, humour is used to good effect, and Gus Lewis, as Stella's son Charlie, provides the film with an emotional core. As Peter attempts to talk to her about different kinds of love, we see the seesawing influence of her feelings for her lover and for her child. Is her relationship with Edgar merely an obsession? Should one sort of love be considered more real than another? These questions spill over into greater concerns about just what constitutes sanity anyway, and Stella must journey through madness to find out the truth.

As an examination of what it means to be mad, Asylum works very well, packed as it is with personable and (otherwise) reasonable characters who are still clearly dysfunctional. As a moral tale, it is complex and provocative, still darker than it first appears. As a human tale, it is consistently engaging. Highly recommended.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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Infidelity at an institution for the criminally insane.
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Read more Asylum reviews:

Chris ****
Anton Bitel ****

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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