David Mackenzie relishes dark tales of sexual obsession like a gleeful masturbator, following up last year’s Young Adam with this adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s modern gothic novel. Once again, he takes a compelling literary work and renders it trite, and, since he appears indifferent to visual storytelling, he lets his well-cast actors dictate the rhythm of scenes. But the greater problem seems to be his use of highbrow literary works as an excuse for tawdry sex scenes, which seem calculated, not earthy. In Young Adam, the scene where Ewan McGregor sprays condiments all over his nubile girlfriend tries so willfully to be edgy that it becomes laughable.
Asylum is likewise doomed by its own self-importance. Buttoned-down psychiatrist’s wife Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) takes up residence at a high-security mental institution for the criminally insane. Her uptight husband (Hugh Bonneville) has become deputy superintendent, and has little time for her. Enter handsome, brooding gardener Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a former sculptor who brutally destroyed his wife in a jealous rage. Late 1950s housewife repression gives way to naked desire, and Cinemax-style sex in the greenhouse. But the enigmatic Dr. Cleve (Ian McKellen) keeps a close watch over his patient, and develops an unhealthy fascination for Stella. Screenwriter Patrick Marber preserves the radical plot twists intact from McGrath’s novel, but his translation loses the author’s tone of dry macabre.
This failed opportunity is nearly saved by Richardson, who hasn’t had so meaty a role in years—a curse that befalls many a talented fortysomething actress. She digs into it with the fearlessness of her mother Vanessa (who she strikingly resembles). It’s a woman’s dream part: the Queen Bee surrounded by amorous would-be suitors. Richardson’s supporting males are mostly up to the job, though none of them (particularly McKellen’s dirty old queen) are any match for her. As her sanity gives way, her performance wonders whether it’s better to give in to your desires than maintain boring decorum. Would that the movie surrounding her was so fearless.