The terrifying paralysis of clinical depression has inspired a trove of bracing memoirs but has yet to produce its definitive movie—the darkness visible has suffused films by Bergman, Bresson, Cronenberg, and others, but usually as a secondary symptom of a larger social, mental, or metaphysical malaise. Getting inside the head of the stunned and dulled adulteress Stella Raphael in his 1996 novel
Asylum, Patrick McGrath describes “the numbness muffling the world and turning everything colorless and indistinct.” Perhaps any film that penetrates this dense fog risks fading into gray oblivion.
Painted in a chiaroscuro of dusky blues and browns (recalling his assured previous feature
Young Adam), David Mackenzie’s film adaptation, from a screenplay by Closer scribe Patrick Marber, plods dutifully through McGrath’s events. Stella (Natasha Richardson) arrives with uptight husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) and their young son at a mental institution outside London, where Max has been named the new deputy superintendent. Neglected at home and bored insensate by her sparse domestic duties and fellow doctors’ wives, Stella drinks too much, smokes while staring into space, and trades significant glances with a strapping patient, the Heathcliffian sculptor Edgar (Marton Csokas). Like Madame Bovary, Stella lacks imagination but cocoons into her fantasy life; despite her lust object’s romantic history (Edgar bludgeoned his wife to death and mutilated her corpse) and, perhaps more pertinently, his sexual stamina (their first bonk lasts approximately 5.3 seconds), Stella soon semi-wittingly abets his escape and is hurrying off to London at every opportunity to grind away in his grotty East End hideout, with predictable and mechanically dispensed consequences.
For a film that comprises erotomania, psychosis, several types of unnatural death, and—horror of horrors—professional exile in northernmost Wales,
Asylum is most shocking for its relentless enervation. As did the masterful McGrath adaptation Spider, the film eschews a voice-over in adapting a first-person narration (that of Edgar’s shrink, Dr. Cleave, here a cipher given unwritten dimensions by Ian McKellen), but instead of daring an expressionist immersion in madness and despair as David Cronenberg did, Mackenzie and Marber opt for an anonymous viewpoint of clinical detachment, which generates about the same psychodramatic tension as reading the
DSM-IV. Marber’s grisliest tweak to the novel carries an echo (probably inadvertent) of Polanski’s The Tenant, but without the macabre frisson; like a patient who’s reached her nadir, Asylum cannot sustain affect.