“A dangerous sport–love.”
Forbidden passion, jealousy, and insanity are the themes in the atmospheric, psychological drama Asylum–a tale of a sultry, destructive adulterous affair. When the film begins, the ambitious Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his family to take up a position as the new Deputy Superintendent at a mental hospital. The mental hospital is a Gothic-style building set in gorgeous country grounds, but for Max’s wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), the hospital, and the society of other doctors’ wives offer no consolations. She is bored to tears. Her small son, Charlie becomes friends with one of the patients, a former sculptor named Edgar (Marton Csokas). Edgar is considered perfectly safe–even though he slaughtered his wife in a jealous rage years before.
Max is an insufferable husband–and it seems clear to him and his visiting mother that Stella–as a wife–is a bit of a letdown. Stella doesn’t fit in, and the fact she wears tight, revealing clothing doesn’t help matters as far as Max is concerned. While Max coldly and witheringly lectures Stella about her many failings, and inappropriate behaviour, she’s gradually attracted to Edgar. In a deserted greenhouse, they indulge in a passionate, adulterous affair. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered–especially since Edgar is the “pet patient” of Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen). The reptilian Cleave is a quiet bachelor who admits he spends his life “immersed in the passions of others.” And that quote rings horribly true by the film’s end.
Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, the film explores the relationships between its complex–and not particularly nice–main characters. While the plot has its soap-opera-ish moments, nonetheless, it’s all cleverly done. By the film’s conclusion, it’s painfully obvious that there’s very little difference between the asylum inmates, and those ‘curing’ the patients. The film’s complicated psychological analyses–particularly of Stella–resonate long after the credits roll. Stella–who undergoes an astonishing physical deterioration in the film–is seen at first as a average, bored wife who strays under the misapprehension that Edgar isn’t dangerous, but as the plot continues, Stella’s inappropriate behaviour is clearly just part of her deviance. For those who haven’t read any novels by Patrick McGrath, I recommend them strongly. He’s the master of the psychological, gothic novel. McGrath’s father was the medical superintendent of Broadmoor–a hospital for the criminally insane. And after reading one of McGrath’s novels, it’s obvious that this experience left its mark on this original, clever author.