2½ stars (out of four)
Natasha Richardson glides through the film version of Patrick McGrath's novel "Asylum" in various states of fear, desire and undress, a swan among Yorkshire frumps. As this placid tale of mad love unfolds, charting an affair between the wife of a mental hospital administrator and her brooding, Heathcliffy lover, Richardsonwho is 5 foot 9, according to various unimpeachable Internet sources, but in "Asylum" looks to be about nine feet talltowers over her repressed lessers, a lightning rod in summer whites.
Set in 1959, the story begins as Stella Raphael (Richardson) arrives in her grim new surroundings alongside her tightly buttoned husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) and their solitary 10-year-old son, Charlie (Gus Lewis). The marriage iced over years ago. We hear of Stella's past indiscretions, which Max clearly hasn't forgotten or forgiven.
Any hope of newfound peace is shattered by a charismatic aesthete in Stella's midst, sculptor Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), pet patient of one of Max's associates. Playing Dr. Peter Cleave, a subtly devious character specializing in "sexual pathology and its assorted catastrophes," Sir Ian McKellen finesses the tiniest of pauses like someone who deserves a second knighthood just for his timing.
"I might remind you I'm your superior," huffs Bonneville.
"In what sense?" McKellen replies, tartly, after a quarter-millisecond.
That name "Cleave" indicates a doctor who has in him a divisive touch of Iago. Prior to his confinement, Edgar, Cleave's patient, killed his wife in a jealous rage. He now spends his glowering days restoring the hospital conservatory. (Csokas resembles Russell Crowe with a dash of Kevin Spacey, though the glowering doesn't come with much variety.) With the arrival of Stella, both Edgar and Cleave detect the right kind of trouble.
As in the 1997 novel, the film version of "Asylum" gets to the sex straight off. Fleeing a suffocating life of hospital women's committees, Stella succumbs to Edgar's advances all over the hospital grounds, including in the decrepit hothouse that's under restoration. Remember the board game Clue? "Asylum" is like a moderately steamy BBC-TV edition of Clue: Mrs. Raphael did it with the sculptor in the conservatory.
Don't assume Edgar's a "tortured genius," Cleave tells Stella. "He's a failed artistinfinitely more dangerous." She does not heed the warning. After Edgar escapes from the asylum, Stella follows him to London, joining him in his dingy flat, where he lives with a less violence-prone fellow artist. Things get rough, and rougher. Eventually she returns to her former life. But Stella cannot shake the hold her bad-boy lover exerts.
The novel benefited from its first-person storytelling technique; the narrative unfolded as a series of castbook entries relayed by Cleave, its most surprising character. The film rids the story of this perspective as well as its fancy flashback structure. The results are trim (90 minutes) and watchable, but they lack shading, a sense of surprise. The "Asylum" screenplay is by Patrick Marber and Chrisanthy Balis, and Marber's play "Closer," with its grasping lovers and eloquent venalities, suggests an apt fit for McGrath's tale of sensual obsession and pathological jealousy. Yet there's a problem with pathological jealousy: In story terms, too easily it can turn into a pathological drag. The Gothic-tragic plot doesn't thicken so much as fulfill a well-telegraphed destiny.
The way Mackenzie handles the sex in "Asylum" is very different than the way he shaped similar scenes in his previous film, the far superior "Young Adam" (2003). Like "Asylum," "Young Adam" hinged on a dangerous adulterous triangle, but its characters drew you in while keeping you guessing. They weren't archetypes; they were full, intriguing, hungry-eyed characters, with plenty of dramatic breathing roomand this was a film set largely aboard a Glasgow barge with Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor circling each other like hunter and prey, switching roles from scene to scene almost subliminally. "Asylum," by contrast, is more about plot than character, and while moderately absorbing it all goes the way you suspect it'll go.
It's easy to see why Richardson, one of nine executive producers on the film, wanted to play Stella: She's a new variation on a hardy theme, re-composed by everyone from Emile Zola in "Therese Raquin" to James M. Cain in "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Yet even at its most melodramatic, "Asylum" plays as if someone had slipped a pair of restraining devices on the material and then yelled "action." When it's over you're left with fleeting, handsomely lighted images of Richardson, a moth drawn to the flame of lust, and of McKellen, pursing his lips with exquisite tact, lest he inadvertently smack them.
Directed by David Mackenzie; screenplay by Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath; photographed by Giles Nuttgens; edited by Colin Monie and Steven Weisberg; production designed by Laurence Dorman; music by Mark Mancina; produced by Mace Neufeld, Laurence Borg and David E. Allen. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (for strong sexuality, some violence and brief language).
Stella Raphael - Natasha Richardson
Dr. Peter Cleave - Ian McKellen
Edgar Stark - Marton Csokas
Max Raphael - Hugh Bonneville
Charlie Raphael - Gus Lewis
Jack Straffen - Joss Ackland
Brenda Raphael - Judy Parfitt