Asylum, based on a novel by Patrick McGrath and with a screenplay by Patrick Marber (Closer), is a high-Gothic examination of obsession–virtually all of the major characters are obsessed with one thing or another. Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is a priggish psychiatrist, obsessed with his career, here with rising to the directorship of a huge Victorian heap of a mental institution for the criminally insane. His wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), for whom the chemistry has apparently drained from their marriage, is bored, directionless and clearly uninterested in joining the ranks of provincial staff wives in their floral print dresses.
Stella becomes sexually obsessed with a handsome inmate,Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a sculptor who murdered his wife. And he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. The other principal character is Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), a shrink competing with Max for the position of director of the asylum. Cleave is obsessed with playing God–controlling his patients and their fates, subjugating legitimate treatment to his own manipulative needs. "I spend my life immersed in the life of others," he says.
The film plays against the high-Gothic genre with deliberate understatement. There’s no attempt to build traditional suspense, no nerve-tingling score, no bogey-men jumping out of the shadows. Director David Mackenzie, whose underseen Young Adam is a superbly effective drama, draws fine performances from his world-class Asylum cast, provides clarity in the narrative, a stylish look to the production, and a generally low-keyed atmosphere of foreboding.
But whatever insights might have been offered in the novel never materialize on the screen. The story moves ahead somewhat predictably, step by methodical step, sustaining a tone of literary seriousness and inevitable doom. It is not sufficient as pure storytelling to sustain interest and, at the end, it feels hollow at the center–lacking in any payoff, from an entertainment or from a thematic point of view.
And, too, there is not a single likable character in the bunch. The two psychiatrists are distinctly unappealing personalities, Stark is a nutcase, and Stella seems spoiled and self-centered–even before those traits might be rationalized away by her obsession for Stark. The only moment of satirical relief comes with Judy Parfitt (Girl with a Pearl Earring), who plays Stella’s disdainful, disapproving mother-in-law. She punches more personality into a cameo role than any of the others do over the entire length of the film.