Natasha Richardson delivers a bovine, tediously passive performance as a woman on the verge in "Asylum," whose tasteful bona fides shouldn't fool viewers into thinking it's anything but a pseudo-artsy piece of tripe. Mooning about with wan, sad-eyed detachment, Richardson is supposed to represent the repressed sexuality that seethed under the neo-Victorian strictures of the 1950s.
But there's nothing remotely seething -- or sympathetic or provocative -- about this overstuffed movie, which bears the unmistakable signs of a film too in love with its own fetishistic production values. The filmmakers seem so interested in re-creating the wasp waists, pointy bras and lipstick traces of 1950s Britain that the fact that their story hinges on three wholly unsympathetic characters seems to have escaped them.
Richardson plays Stella Raphael, the wife of a psychiatrist (Hugh Bonneville) and mother of a 10-year-old son. "Asylum" opens as the Raphaels are arriving at a mental hospital on the outskirts of London, where Dr. Raphael is on track to become a big wheel. Soon unto this cold, careerist marriage a savior is borne when a patient, Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), is sent to work on the couple's greenhouse. Rippling with the animal sexuality of a D.H. Lawrence character, Edgar seduces Stella into a series of crude, perfunctory assignations. When one of her husband's colleagues, a wily competitor named Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen), tells Stella that Edgar, a sculptor, killed and decapitated his former wife after disfiguring her with a sculptor's knife, she isn't repelled but piqued. And so the folie a deux commences, entailing consequences that are by turns unfortunate, tragic and appallingly, infuriatingly, time-wastingly stupid.
There are all sorts of indications in "Asylum" that things might have deeper histories and meanings than they might first indicate, such as when Stella's husband refers to her as his "pet patient" and people pointedly ask him whether she's "behaving herself." But these and other promising avenues continually go unexploited by director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Patrick Marber (who wrote the overrated "Closer") in favor of the most literal plot points of Stella's morbid obsession.
As the film's putative star, Richardson is oddly blank, never conveying the sexual heat or desperation that are driving Stella to depravity. (For their parts, Bonneville, McKellen and Csokas are fine, but just that.)
"Asylum" was adapted from the well-reviewed novel by Patrick McGrath, and reportedly Sir Ian's interpretation on the book-on-tape is fantastic. Viewers are hereby advised to skip the movie and proceed directly to the written and spoken word; perhaps in those "Asylums" they'll find the characters, story and psychological depth that Mackenzie and Marber couldn't.
Asylum (90 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Shirlington, Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for strong sex scenes and nudity, some violence and brief profanity.