Natasha Richardson is a smoking fetishist’s dream. The actress has the kind of haughty chiseled beauty that begs to be cracked by earthly sin. In David Mackenzie’s Asylum, the director lovingly envelops her cruel but delicate features in a cloud of sinuous cigarette smoke. It’s a telling pose, simultaneously beautiful and distancing.

Too bad that Richardson’s performance is internalized to the point of catatonia. As Stella, the bored housewife of mental hospital administrator Max (Huge Bonneville), she spends her days consumed with ennui, smoking, drinking and looking after her young son, Charlie (Gus Lewis). Luckily, she meets handsome mental patient Edgar Stark (as in stark raving mad), played by Marton Csokas, who channels. Her self-control crumbles and the two fall into a torrid and clandestine affair. See, Edgar is an artist, far from the stodgy uncaring husband who shares her bed — never mind the fact he lopped off his wife’s head after beating her to death with a hammer in a jealous rage.

It isn’t long before Edgar escapes and Stella’s growing obsession leads her into a succession of outrageously bad decisions, not the least of which is to abandon her son. Edgar’s green-eyed madness re-emerges and things come to a tragic head.

Adapted by Patrick Marber (Closer) from a novel by Patrick McGrath (Spider and The Grotesque) this gothic melodrama takes itself far too seriously. For a film about madness, sex and violence, it’s too sane and almost dull. Mackenzie misses McGrath’s morbid sense of humor and seems unable to find any dramatic momentum, allowing the story to meander predictably along. We can see almost every turn of the plot long before it comes around the bend. Furthermore, Mackenzie’s restraint undercuts the original story of its emotional intensity and macabre flourishes. The director liberally borrows imagery from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (watch for scenes in the clock tower) but lacks the master’s uncanny ability to humanize his characters’ most outlandish sentiments.

Nevertheless, solid acting, intricate period sets and beautiful cinematography keep the film highly watchable, even if it never fully comes to life. Csokas delivers an unsettling slow burn as the sensitive psychopath, uncoiling his madness to good effect. Better still, supporting players Ian McKellen, as a power-mad old queen, and Judy Parfitt, as husband Max’s vindictive mother, relish the sordid melodrama of their characters and turn in delightfully nasty performances. They’re the only two actors who seem to understand McGrath’s ghoulish sense of humor.

Richardson is wonderful to look at but her aloof poise and chilly composure rob the character of any depth or passion. The performance calls for less serious reserve and more hysteria. Her character is locked onto a singular path of self-destruction and watching her methodically trudge toward emotional ruin just isn’t that compelling.

Asylum’s last act finally picks up some steam when McKellan’s manipulations come into focus. Building to a climax that packs an appropriately tragic punch, we get a sense of what the film might have achieved if it had examined the gray zones between sanity and madness, instead of simply highlighting the line that separates the two.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre(118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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