"Asylum" deftly sets up a valid premise for a taut psychological thriller only to dissipate in a series of improbable developments and drawn-out anticlimaxes. Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis' script from Patrick McGrath's novel affords Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas and Hugh Bonneville plenty of opportunities to pull out all the stops under David Mackenzie's direction, but they're swept over by a tidal wave of lurid, increasingly implausible and depressingly old-fashioned melodramatics.
A throwback to vintage "women's pictures" of the '40s and '50s spiced up by a lot of steamy R-rated sex, "Asylum" ultimately is done in by an absurd passion for symmetry, which in effect dictates that despite the epic havoc that ensues, it pretty much ends as it begins.
It's 1959, and Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville), his wife, Stella (Richardson), and their small son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), arrive at a vast Broadmoor-like Victorian-era mental institution, a virtual brick-and-mortar fortress village. (It's actually High Royds, a mental institution that operated in Yorkshire between 1888 and 2003 and is being recycled into luxury condos.)
Max has been named deputy superintendent over longtime employee Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellen) and is entirely focused on succeeding the current superintendent (Joss Ackland), who has announced his intention to retire. Such single-mindedness on Max's part is not a smart move considering that Stella is a restless, boldly sensual beauty, a standout among dowdy, conventional staff wives, dutiful but chafing under her obligations as a proper spouse to her husband.
When a trusted patient (Csokas) is assigned to rebuild a dilapidated greenhouse in the Raphaels' backyard, the attraction between Stella and Csokas' seductive Edgar, a sculptor who killed his wife in a fit of jealous rage, is immediate, and it's clear that it will erupt into an all-consuming passion.
From the start it's also equally obvious that Cleave, Edgar's attending doctor, is a smooth, insinuating master manipulator not above deliberately throwing the susceptible lovers into each other's path. Possibly a repressed homosexual, possibly craving Stella for himself -- or both -- Cleave is a compulsive, dangerous control freak who may be every bit as mad as his patients.
There are lots of directions in which Stella and Edgar's predicament could go, and "Asylum" seems determined to try them all before it's over, at long last. It's too over-the-top, too lurid and at times simply too silly to represent any kind of valid commentary on the repressive '50s or the way in which institutions tend to destroy rather than cure. "Far From Heaven," which nailed '50s angst to perfection, "Asylum" could not be farther from.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, some violence and brief language
Times guidelines: Very steamy sex, brief but jolting violence, adult themes, definitely not for children
A Paramount Pictures release. Director David Mackenzie. Producers Mace Neufeld, Laurence Borg, David E. Allen. Screenplay by Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis; based on the novel by Patrick McGrath. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. Editors Colin Monie, Steven Weisberg. Music Mark Mancina. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
At the ArcLight, Sunset Boulevard at Vine Street, (323) 464-4226; Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 281-8223; and South Coast Village 3, across from South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana. (800) FANDANGO, 162#.