Tales of the morally depraved are hard to appreciate--and even harder to like--even if when they're done well. See 2004's Closer. Asylum, ironically written by Closer scribe Patrick Marber, is no exception.
Set in the wintry tones of 1950's England, Asylum follows a confused woman, Stella (Natasha Richardson), who has too much time on her hands. Her husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), an ambitious forensic psychiatrist, has been hired to treat patients at a criminal psychiatric hospital, and soon the married couple, along with their 10-year-old son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), are living on the hospital's grounds. Unstable as she is, Stella soon falls for a pathological inmate named Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), smitten with his mysterious volatility. Problem is, Edgar murdered his wife. But Edgar and Stella begin a lusty affair anyway, and Stella's family life dissolves into shambles. Jealous doctor Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) accelerates the breakdown. Asylum is about trapped, troubled people, confined by their own limitations.
This eclectic ensemble of Britain's finest thespians (and one New Zealander) is Asylum's strongest suit, as they play up their worst behaviors. Richardson excels as the detestable Stella, letting her fawn-like yet manic eyes do the talking during extended facial close-up scenes. Richardson captures Stella's addiction to helplessness. McKellen (up next in X-Men 3) wields a strong quietness, commanding attention with his unpredictable, acerbic intentions. As the asylum's voice of authority, McKellen makes us believe he belongs in the institution. But the heaviest lifting is left to Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven, The Great Raid), who must be at once brooding and pacifying as a wife murderer. Csokas' combination of desirable and repulsive works with mixed results, though they are satisfactory. His allure is functional.
The mushy form of Stella's descent makes Asylum feel like a long, misdirected slog, even though it's only 97 minutes long. There isn't much of a story unfolding; instead, it's more of a zigzag-wandering around the stations of grief. Edgar's crazy, Stella's in love with him, and that's Asylum. The film also often shifts locations without engaging the audience to care. Certain scenes are, indeed, devastating, true to Asylum's grief-stricken story. Director David MacKenzie (Young Adam) shows some chops with his visual narrative style. But the story runs into the ground repeatedly, like a nihilistic jackhammer. The direction, then, seems more like an irritant.
Asylum wallows in infidelity, dishonesty, homicide, domestic abuse, and child death. While crafted with a visual storyteller's gentle touch and British nuances, Asylum is too much of a downer to recommend more than one viewing.