2005 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 99 min. / Street Date January 17, 2006 / 29.99
Starring Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas, Hugh Bonneville, Gus Lewis, Joss Ackland
Cinematography Giles Nuttgens
Production Designer Laurence Dorman
Art Direction Philip Barber
Film Editor Colin Monie, Steven Weisberg
Original Music Marc Fantini, Steffan Fantini, Mark Mancina
Written by Patrick Marber, Chrysanthy Balis from a novel by Patrick McGrath
Produced by: David E. Allen, Michael Barlow, Laurie Borg, John Buchanan, David Collins, Chris Curling, Baron Davis, Harmon Kaslow, Steve Markoff, Bruce McNall, Mace Neufeld, Robert Rehme, Natasha Richardson
Directed by David Mackenzie
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This steamy tale of passion at a large English mental hospital has a lot going for it - excellent photography and good acting - but its story of destructive obsession is far too generic. We quickly guess exactly where it is going - and those plot turns that are genuine surprises don't offer much in the way of excitement or illuminating storytelling. Aspiring filmmakers thinking that their meager efforts might make a miraculous breakthrough to wide audiences should regard the fact that this expensive Panavision production with big stars is essentially making a stealth debut on DVD: Asylum got a limited theatrical release in the United States last fall -- a very quiet release.
A fortress-like stone compound outside of London is a strict but humane psychiatric hospital, run by a learned and competitive staff. Doctor Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is taking over the top slot, transplanting his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) and their young son Charlie (Gus Lewis) into the hospital's stifling social atmosphere. Patient / trusty Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas) is allowed to work on the Raphael's summer house and befriends Charlie. He falls into a surreptitious affair with the passion-starved Stella, a crazy relationship that spells doom for all: Edgar is incarcerated because he murdered and mutilated his wife in a jealous rage. Even weirder is the the fact that Edgar's manipulative doctor Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) considers Edgar his pet patient, and may be encouraging the relationship to usurp Max Raphael's top roost in the asylum hierarchy.
Asylum spends all of its time on the soap-opera hijinks between sultry Stella and her hunky-psycho lover Edgar, and almost none on elaborating on what's really happening behind the scenes. We're given reels of the lovers meeting and making love all over the asylum grounds; they appear to be able to find privacy just about anywhere even though the place is patrolled by a small army of alert guards and matrons. Their affair stays a murky rumor, when by all rights it should be discovered by plenty of people with every reason to bring it fully to light.
A capable cast enlivens the triangle (or rectangle) of sexual intrigue but cannot make it seem different from countless soapy tales that have gone before. Busy hubby Hugh Bonneville is a cold fish, so the hot-blooded Stella has no choice but to be groped and squeezed by her (usually filthy) looney lover Edgar. They get down to business in the dirt or on the floor of a greenhouse being renovated, but Stella's white skirt is always clean when the sex is done. By the time little Charlie is spilling the beans about what Mummy and Edgar are doing, we're more interested in Ian McKellen's connivances, which Asylum keeps frustratingly obscure. His Dr. Cleave is well aware of the mutual interest between his pet patient and his competitor's oversexed wife, yet his only response is to encourage Edgar and invite Stella in to talk about 'her problem,' all in confidence, of course.
The story eventually refuses to commit to the fact that Cleave is pulling the puppet strings behind everything that happens. Edgar mocks Cleave as a 'queen' who really wants Edgar's love, but Cleave's grand scheme appears to peak at winning his competitor's top asylum job and bedding his wife. Cleave's final attempt to manipulate both Edgar and Stella into his complete control backfires, making Asylum seem as if it is unwilling to go all the way and become a Cabinet of Caligari- like horror show. Madmen are in charge of the loonies! Surprise, surprise.
The final reels of Asylum are a chaotic jumble lurching from one unpleasant tragedy to the next. Natasha Richardson is so forceful as Stella that we have a hard time believing she could be held in thrall by sexual obsession. Thus we feel little sympathy for her when she abandons her son. Later, when she goes nuts and various innocent characters begin to suffer, we simply don't follow. Unless Asylum is a victim of editorial butchery, the fault seems to lie with a script that doesn't connect the emotional dots. Asylum takes on echoes of Leave Her to Heaven and any number of more memorable tragedies where fallen women eventually destroy themselves out of runaway passions.
Paramount's DVD of Asylum is a stunning enhanced transfer with excellent 5.1 audio; Giles Nuttgens' atmospheric cinematography keeps the interest level high even as we're becoming frustrated with the story. There are no extras. The "Paramount Classics" logo on the attractively-designed disc box puts this picture among the seemingly hundreds of studio "releases that soon disappear into video limbo. NOTE: Savant thanks several readers who assured me that Asylum did get a small theatrical release in the fall of 2005.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 30, 2006