Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller
Play time: 1h 39min
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriters: Patrick McGrath (novel), Patrick Marber (screenplay)
Starring: Natasha Richardson, Sean Harris, Marton Csokas
David Mackenzie, whose Young Adam generated some mild controversy with its frank nudity and accompanying NC-17 rating, has this doomsday view of sex that I just love. He films sex scenes like they’re the Hiroshima bombing, the culmination of something terrible and bound to lead to something more terrible still. The motivation for sex in his movies never seems to be romance or (God forbid) love; sometimes it’s passion, though not usually of the positive variety, but more often it’s something else: guilt, obsession, greed, or worse. It’s really quite intriguing.
There’s lots and lots of sex in Asylum, Mackenzie’s terrifically entertaining and powerful new film, and unlike the sex in Young Adam, some of it actually possesses a deviant sort of eroticism. But turning you on is the least of Mackenzie’s concerns. Under the guise of a period piece potboiler, he has made a disturbing film about the dark side of human nature, about how our deepest desires can not only drive us mad, but eviscerate the lives of others. Here, sex is indeed an instrument of destruction.
But before it gets that far, Asylum is a grandiose melodrama, a soap opera with superb production values. You have to be in the mood for that sort of thing, but I had a lot of fun with at least the first two acts of the film, which cheerfully weave a tangled web of adultery, betrayal, arcane institutional politics, and surreptitious screwing around. Natasha Richardson has her meatiest role in years as Stella Rafael, who accompanies her husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) to his new position as superintendent of a vast and formidable mental institution. She is expected to “involve herself in the life of the hospital,” but instead involves herself with one of Dr. Peter Cleave’s (Ian McKellen) favorite patients — the volatile Edgar (Marton Csokas), who, we are informed, killed his wife in a fit of rage.
So Stella romps around with Edgar for a while; he fulfills her needs in the stifling atmosphere of the asylum, where she is regularly upbraided for failing to “behave,” mostly by her boring husband. Is she in love with him? Does it matter? What does it even mean? It’s suggested that Edgar is dangerous (by Csokas’ simmering performance, if nothing else), and though Max may suspect something, he is thoroughly ineffectual at doing anything about it. Not quite as hapless is Dr. Cleave, who has a peculiar attachment to Edgar himself, and when the latter escapes, triggering a manhunt, things get complicated.
This is all unspeakably lurid, kind of absurd, and awesomely entertaining. The screenplay is based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, whose Spider was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg, and was more of an intricately plotted puzzle than Asylum, which sometimes plays (at least in general terms) like it could be at home with the likes of Original Sin. I love this sort of grandly foreboding, overcooked storytelling; it lets movies escape from the confines of the real world, where everything must be tempered by irony. And even despite the general tone, the way the film portrays the inner politics of the hospital somehow ring true, as do other individual elements. It’s a fascinating achievement.
But then the story takes several darker turns, and the themes Mackenzie has been quietly nurturing come into full relief. This is a film about possession, the way we think that our relationships with people entitle us to own them entire. In the movie, this extends from ostensibly romantic relationships (“I can’t share you,” says Edgar to Stella), to doctor-patient (“He’s mine and he needs my help,” says Dr. Cleave of Edgar). This sort of horrid selfishness is devastating to the people caught in the middle of it, we see, and the last line of the film, despite (or perhaps because of) its rather fanciful realization, is heartbreaking in this context.
It’s not terribly difficult to see this phenomenon manifested in our own lives, although Asylum understandably distorts and exaggerates it into something more worthy of Mackenzie’s sensibilities. It’s a wonderful film, telling an enchanting story, fortifying it, making it forceful and true. The British Mackenzie certainly does not feed into the Hollywood mainstream, but he seems to have found his niche in the universe of arthouse cinema. His is a quiet but sure voice.