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‘Asylum’ asks too much of viewers

Plot takes strange turns, characters make unfathomable choices
/ Source: The Associated Press

The makers of “Asylum,” a tale of forbidden love at a psychiatric hospital, expect far too much from their audience.

This is a movie that can be appreciated only with endless concessions. The plot takes strange turns that are hard to swallow. The characters make unfathomable choices. Viewers are asked to believe the blind desire at the film’s core is an eternal passion on the order of “Wuthering Heights,” when the only real attraction between the lovers seems to be lots of good, hard sex.

Then there’s the tone, which is even drearier than that of director David Mackenzie’s previous tale of lust and infidelity, “Young Adam.”

If you can see beyond all that, “Asylum” would be a fine movie. The stark sets and landscapes, the prim suits and dresses, the cruel paternalism toward the “criminally insane,” all present an intriguing view of postwar Britain.

The performances are bold and earnest, and there are individual scenes with stirring depth and dramatic power.

The movie’s air of inexorable doom, for all its bleakness, leaves a firm impression.

But these positives cannot outweigh the main shortcomings.

“Asylum” is adapted by screenwriters Patrick Marber (the playwright behind “Closer”) and Chrysanthy Balis from the novel by Patrick McGrath, whose father ran Broadmoor Hospital, a mental facility that was the basis for the story’s setting.

Who has the strength for this love?In 1959, Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) arrives at the hospital with husband Max (Hugh Bonneville), the new deputy superintendent there, and their 10-year-old son, Charlie.

Stella and Max share a stilted marriage, stiff and repressed to the point of cliche — he the impassive workaholic demanding a proper family front, she the boozy, bored house frau waiting for any diversion.

She finds it in inmate Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a handsome, hearty sculptor locked up for the murder and mutilation of his wife. Under the condescending care of senior shrink Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), Edgar has arrived at a state of uneasy serenity and has improbable freedom to roam the grounds, assigned to repair the Raphaels’ garden conservatory.

After a few glances and breathy exchanges, Stella and Edgar are off and rutting in a series of dangerous sexual encounters that lead to scandal, recrimination and far worse horrors.

“Asylum” packs a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing, while Mackenzie lets the pacing and momentum run so briskly and abruptly, transitions between scenes often are jarring.

The filmmakers reveal little beyond sex and heavy breathing to account for the attraction between Stella and Edgar, so the depths to which they take the relationship ring false.

Likewise, there is no rationale for actions taken by Max and especially Peter, the master conniver of “Asylum,” who makes a choice so out of character it borders on farcical.

Amid all these strained convolutions, “Asylum” becomes little more than a highbrow soap opera, its drama lost in the lurid details.

“Dangerous sport, love,” Peter remarks early on. “I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.”

If what transpires in “Asylum” is love, who would have the stomach?