- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

“Asylum,” a fatalistic, erotic melodrama whose principal characters meet at a slackly administered mental institution in England circa 1959, is one of the movies least likely to put a song in your heart and bounce in your step.

A chronicle of degradation and calamity derived from a 1996 novel by Patrick McGrath, “Asylum” revolves around the vapidly susceptible figure of Natasha Richardson as Stella Raphael, the adulterous wife of a new deputy superintendent, Hugh Bonneville’s ripe-to-be cuckolded Max Raphael. With no discernible interests beyond smoking and light gardening, Stella becomes an easy conquest for a smoldering, opportunistic inmate named Edgar Starke (Marton Csokas, already busy this season in “The Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Great Raid”), a psychopathic sculptor imprisoned for butchering his wife.

Before you can reflect that “Idle hands are the devil’s helper,” Stella and Edgar are stealing reckless orgasmic moments. To facilitate runaway passion, he has handyman privileges on the campus and gets the assignment to repair a little conservatory at the Raphael residence. The only question that emerges from this volcanic dalliance is “How low can she go?”

Miss Richardson has invoked Cathy Earnshaw, Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler as prototypes for Stella, but she hardly merits inclusion in such classic ill-fated company. If anything, Stella seems an immobile target for inverse snobbery. The costuming frequently mocks her leisure-class status. She’s permitted an absurdly low-cut evening gown at a hospital dance, where Edgar takes a little advantage in public. A hat that resembles an upside-down pasta bowl gags up an excursion to London. A hooded femme fatale get-up, worthy of Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco,” signals Stella’s own scandalous getaway, shortly after her erotic stupor abets Edgar’s escape from the institution.

It’s quite possible that the filmmakers envision Stella as a nasty parody of the famously conscience-stricken, conventional wife played by Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter.” Sixty years ago renunciation could dignify a poignant adulterous attraction. Now lust is indulged to the detriment of human interest.

The only sympathetic figure is the Raphael’s son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), forced to confront painful evidence of his mother’s weakness and instability. When Charlie is treated as a sacrificial pawn, your contempt for the picture is powerfully reinforced.

Ian McKellen’s expertise salvages some entertainment value from the senior shrink on the premises, Dr. Peter Cleave, a sinister name for an exquisitely closeted pervert. The blame game lurking in this fable holds Cleave responsible for the derelictions of the lovers. One amusing exchange gives Mr. McKellen the drop on Mr. Bonneville, his overmatched professional rival. When the latter boasts, “I might remind you I’m your superior,” the latter replies, with shriveling authority, “In what sense?”

Maybe “Asylum” should have been reconceived as drawing room comedy for snippy shrinks.

*

TITLE: “Asylum”

RATING: R (Morbid sexual content, with occasional nudity and simulated intercourse; occasional graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay by Patrick Maber and Chrysanthy Balis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath. Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. Production design by Laurence Dorman. Costume design by Consolata Boyle. Music by Mark Mancina.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: www.paramountclassics.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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