Despite its febrile themes of murder, suicide and violent psychosis and the presence of an oft-nude Natasha Richardson director David Mackenzie's Asylum is so obsessed with rendering Patrick McGrath's exquisitely twisted Gothic novel as a refined affair that it forgets less ambitious pursuits, like sussing out a way to keep us awake.
Basically, the movie is about how the privileged suffer (much more poetically than you or I) and how the poor, though they might be worth a passing fuck, are pretty much disposable nuisances. That probably isn't the best theme to present right now, though context isn't the film's fault. Nevertheless it's got faults aplenty.
Richardson zombie-otically underplays Stella, a sexually repressed wife in a barren marriage to a psychiatrist, Max (Hugh Bonneville). Max has taken a position at a psychiatric facility run by the highly mysterious Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen, in rare phoned-in performance). Stella has an affair with a rakish inmate/starving artist/ex-wife killer named Edgar (Marton Csokas). The idea that pursuing such a strapping nutjob will lead Stella to living like a filthy commoner is high among the film's list of horrific possibilities.
Anyway, all hell breaks loose (politely, please we're British). At one juncture of apparently unspeakable tragedy, Max loses his job and is forced to take a position at a facility in Wales, which also necessitates his making do with a country home. The poor bastard.
Considering the film's title and settings, it's almost self-referentially perverse in its nitwitted portrayal of mental aberration, a depiction that ranges from the clueless to the downright nonsensical. As Mackenzie never bothers to come up with a cinematic substitute for McGrath's intimate, third-person voice, we're left adrift regarding Edgar's violent mood swings, encouraged to tut-tut the bizarre behavior of his destitute flatmate while Dr. Cleave whose lust for Stella is an essential plot point endures an inexplicable, final-reel implication that it's Edgar he really fancies.
Asylum does move at a brisk clip, but the tactful pacing itself becomes a source of monotony. Ironically for a filmmaker whose movie is centered on morbidity, Mackenzie shows a sure way with the tossed-off bon mot. But in a project dealing with festering psychological disintegration, he would have been smart to slow down and smell the decay.