Asylum (15)

Directed by David Mackenzie; Written by Patrick McGrath (novel), Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis (screenplay)
Screening at FACT from 23rd-29th September 2005

Reviewed by Adam Ford

Asylum, noun. 1. An institution for the care of people, especially those with physical or mental impairments, who require organized supervision or assistance. 2. A place offering protection and safety; a shelter. 3. A place, such as a church, formerly constituting an inviolable refuge for criminals or debtors. 4. The protection afforded by a sanctuary. See synonyms at shelter 5. Protection and immunity from extradition granted by a government to a political refugee from another country.

Yes, this film really is that ponderous. Yes, it really does look at all those definitions of the word ‘asylum’, albeit briefly. Set in the 1950s – when mental institutions were still called ‘asylums’, it really does ask if safety is what we really want, or if some of us secretly want a bit of danger in our lives. There really is a criminal, so is the outside world being protected from him or is he being protected from the outside world? And yes, the criminal really is from a very different point on the globe. It’s as if McGrath came up with the title first. Unfortunately, he severely limits himself by focussing on those definitions.

A psychotherapist (Hugh Bonneville), his wife (Natasha Richardson) and son (Gus Lewis) move into the grounds of the mental ‘hospital’ where the doctor will be working. When he buries himself in his work, she gets thoroughly bored of the other wives’ middle class patter and begins a passionate affair with this Australian murderer (Marton Csokas) who’s working in her garden. He proudly tells his ‘therapist’ (Ian McKellen) that he had been diagnosed with a “severe personality disorder with features of morbid jealousy”. In his case, that means he beat his wife to death after she “betrayed” him. However, the diagnosis also seems to apply to everyone in the film, with the exception of the poor kid of course.

What follows could loosely be described as tragic, if at least some of the morbidly jealous characters had some redeeming features. There are also lots of extremely unlikely plot devices, of which the apparent psychopaths being allowed easy access to tools and children is actually one of the least crazy. Mackenzie continually hints that he’s about to ask more interesting questions (Why do people make bad choices? Why are lunatics always in charge of asylums? Who decides what counts as ‘insanity’ anyway?) but backs away and piles on the melodrama with a cinematic trowel.

This isn’t a terrible picture by any means – the creepy Victorian architecture of the asylum makes for a stunning backdrop, while McKellen brings his usual menacing gravitas to his role. But he often seems too good for his own lines, and overshadows the other actors to an embarrassing degree. Next time I’m zipped into my straitjacket, I’d prefer it if the warder put One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest on instead of this. But then maybe I’d start asking some unsafe questions.

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