David Mackenzie's film adaptation of Patrick McGrath's gothic novel Asylum condenses a complex psychological drama into a taut hour-and-a-half, a laudable accomplishment. That a movie remains faithful to the book doesn't mean it captures its emotional power, of course. Despite a superb cast, artful set design and seductive cinematography, Asylum remains a lovingly lensed missed opportunity.
Mackenzie and screenwriter Patrick Marber did take certain liberties with McGrath's chilling tale in an effort to translate its terror and pity to the screen, but their changes come late in the narrative. Asylum begins, as in the book, with the arrival of Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) and his restless wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), at the gloomy mental hospital where he has been named deputy superintendent. It's a plum appointment for an ambitious psychiatrist, but the fortress-like estate offers little opportunity for diversion for a woman already bored with her marriage.
Max decides to have a ruined greenhouse restored, perhaps hoping Stella will expend some of her pent-up energy practicing horticulture. His colleague, Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), assigns his prize patient, Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), the task of reglazing the structure. Stark, a sculptor, seems well-suited to the job, even if, in the past, he employed his artistic skills to decapitate his wife and carve up her head. Why would Cleave place a misogynistic sociopath in harm's way of a woman who clearly has difficulty sublimating her sexual desire? Because he resents Max for taking the job he believes should be his.
It isn't long before Stark and Stella begin a flagrant affair, one that thrives on danger and risk. Mackenzie, who explored similar material in Young Adam, captures Stella's frustration, yearning and lust in these early scenes, the best in the film. But Stella is no ordinary bored housewife. She is, as much as Stark, mad, bad and dangerous to know. This is a woman who embraces deadly pleasure, abandons her son (Augustus Jeremiah Lewis) to chase after Stark when he escapes to London, and destroys her husband's career, the least painful consequence of her actions. We don't need to feel heat between Stella and Stark-we aren't dealing with love, or even passion-so much as we need to believe in their shared psychosis. They're narcissists, not hedonists, and the subsequent scenes between the lovers in their London hideaway, a decrepit warehouse they share with Edgar's clandestine assistant, Nick (Sean Harris), should reference Hitchcock rather than Bertolucci.
Mackenzie, for all his empathy with his troubled leading lady, fails to pluck out the heart of her mystery. The film increasingly focuses on Stella (along with Cleave, who turns out to be perversely Machiavellian), but her lack of affect isn't enough to evoke the frisson of horror McGrath conveys in the novel. We do get some sense of Edgar losing his mind, again, as he struggles to capture Stella's image on paper and with clay. But Cleave is correct when he calls Edgar a failed artist, and his failure infuriates him more than the insane jealousy that prompts him to pummel, first Nick, then Stella.
Paradoxically, David Cronenberg, not known as an actor's director, coaxed a brilliant performance from Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Spider, another gothic thriller from McGrath, its story far more interior than Asylum. Mackenzie chose a subtle, understated approach to a film that offers opportunity for action. While Richardson and Csokas look right for their parts, neither actor exhibits the intensity Fiennes brought to his role. McKellen as Cleave ends up commandeering the camera as well as the lives of the other characters, but his triumph, such as it is, feels false, an ending exaggerated for the film that doesn't improve McGrath's original.
Similarly, production designer Laurence Dorman's staging is atmospheric, yet the film seems too pretty, and too warm. The castle-like hospital, the abandoned warehouse in London, and the thatched cottage in Wales where Max Raphael is banished for the transgressions of his wife would be cold, lonely places, but the characters never so much as shiver in a film intended to make the audience do so as well. Asylum is watchable and entertaining, but it's rarely suspenseful or scary, a reminder of how difficult it is to make madness cinematic.