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Asylum (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) and her husband Dr. Max (Hugh Bonneville) arrive at a mental hospital with their son, Charlie (Augustus Jeremiah Lewis) in 1959. Max has just been hired as deputy superintendent of the hospital instead of long-time staffer Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), who is not happy about it. Stella’s not happy, either, as she appears locked in a passionless marriage. Susceptible as she is to romantic feelings, she embarks on a torrid affair with inmate Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who has been committed because he beat his wife to death and then decapitated her.

It’s all downhill from there. Stark is a brooding, sexual animal who satisfies Stella’s lust for sex. Richardson gives a good performance as a woman slowly going mad, but there really isn’t any eroticism in sexual part of the role. Director David Mackenzie, who has otherwise directed a brilliant film here, must bear part of the burden because the many scenes of Stella and Edgar having sex are just like two dogs rutting. There is nothing erotic or sensual about them. Panting does not sensuality make. Then, again, maybe that’s what Mackenzie was trying to achieve.

The screenplay is by Patrick Marber, based on his play. Marber was responsible for Mike Nichols’ “Closer” last year, which was script and character-driven. Marber’s script is very good. All of the actors are terrific.

Bonneville is particularly effective as the prim cuckold, whose coldness drives his wife to unimaginable acts for a mother who clearly loves her son. Stella’s fling is somewhat understandable the first time, but as she continues, she keeps getting drawn deeper and deeper into Edgar’s madness. Edgar, for his part, seems like such a lovable soul. But as the affair continues we begin to see that Stella might be as mad as Edgar. Richardson and Csokas give remarkable performances in translating Marber’s intuitive story of these two troubled people to the screen.McKellen plays the suave, deviously manipulative Dr. Cleave to a T.

 I’ve seen both of the films made out of Marber’s plays and for which he wrote the screenplays. This guy is a comer, but whether he can make it in a Hollywood mesmerized by special effects and comic book stories, a Hollywood that disdains good writing and good scripts, will have to be seen. Like “Closer,” this is a thought-provoking film.

July 29, 2005