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Despair Descends on the English Countryside

Natasha Richardson's Stella, the despondent British housewife at the center of Asylum, is the very personification of loneliness, caught in the throes of marital discontent and yearning for passion. Her life is dreary and mired in routine: After moving to a home within the bounds of a mental institution with her psychiatrist husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), and their 10-year old son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), she smokes her cigarettes and tends to her garden, oblivious to others, even those closest to her. She is trapped in a state of self-imposed isolation, her spirit deadened by neglect.

It comes as little surprise, then, that she takes an interest in Edgar (Marton Csokas), a ruggedly handsome mental patient who is mysterious, sullen and deadly. Having been institutionalized for decapitating his wife, Edgar has spent years under the dubious care of Cleave (Ian McKellan), a psychiatrist with a devilish glint in his eyes. Now, however improbably, he is free to roam the nearby countryside, and it is there that he meets Stella. Misery loves company -- especially when that company has a killer body and a low-cut neckline -- so when Stella and Edgar find themselves locked in a sensual embrace during the annual patient-staff dance, the torrid affair that follows is not at all shocking.

Asylum, directed by David Mackenzie and based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, presents a stark, effective portrait of one woman's struggle against the oppression of her marriage. She rediscovers some kind of passion in her otherwise joyless trysts, and her life as an adulteress is liberating: at long last, she can openly embrace her sexuality, a practice frowned upon in 1950's England. Yet Richardson's joylessness, as mirrored in her relentlessly mopey demeanor, is contagious.

McGrath, himself the son of a superintendent of Broadmoor, a British home for the criminally insane, has created a dreary, humorless atmosphere, undoubtedly based on some personal experience. His tale of misguided love and perverse behavior set against a dry, clinical background is disturbing at times, and it works nicely as a critique of the so-called experts in charge of the institution. But it is often inaccessibly bleak, and the only one having any fun seems to be McKellan, whose devious doctor injects the slightest bit of life into the proceedings.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars