Ain't nothing in this world more tedious than highbrow erotica, which works itself into a lather and then wipes off the sweat before anyone notices how awfully and inappropriately worked-up it got. Asylum, adapted by Closer's Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis from the novel by Patrick McGrath, is just that sort of chaste entity: soft-core, soft-focus and plain ol' soft, its glimpses of skin obscured by the smooth silken lingerie of Natasha Richardson's Stella and the tattered prison work clothes of Marton Csokas' Edgar, whose musty affair goes awry to no one's surprise.
Indeed, this is a thriller sans any kick at all, a snapshot of obsession that's less about the risks one takes for true love than it is about the dumb chances one takes when stifled and bored and game for any sort of excitement at all. (It's ironic, of course, that there's none to be found here.) The best you can say of Asylum is that it plays like a topless Twilight Zone (Richardson, bless her heart, disrobes for two totally pointless bathtub scenes intended to depict her sad, soggy state of mind) -- or it would have, had it ended long before it peters out in predictably irksome what-the-fu... fashion.
That's actually the fault of McGrath, whose novel is faithfully adapted by Marber and director David Mackenzie, whose big-screen take on the novel Young Adam last year explored similar areas -- which is to say, those between the belly button and knee caps and how nutty people get whenever they're allowed access to that particular promised land. Alas, McGrath intended his novel as something more profound than a kinky joke; his was a horror story set in a mental asylum nestled in the lovely English countryside, where the patients are allowed only glimpses of the pastoral freedom they'd never again know. But Asylum, the book, played more like a spooky soap opera -- a Harlequin romance by way of Sigmund Freud.
The movie winds up equally lurid and also tame: It wants to cut loose, to let itself get swept up in the rapturous whirlwinds of dumbfounding passion and orgasmic obsession, but it hasn't the guts to go nuts. Instead, it feels as bored as Stella, who's tethered to domineering husband Max (Hugh Bonneville, who resembles Colin Firth turned down to three), recently hired as the assistant superintendent at the mental asylum, where he cares not a whit that he and his wife barely speak and that Stella spends all her time drinking, smoking and making goo-goo eyes at Csokas' Edgar, a would-be artist imprisoned for butchering his wife in a fit of jealous rage. Nobody at all, save Ian McKellen as creepy sex-obsessed psychiatrist Peter Cleave, even notices when zonked-out Stella and worked-up Edgar begin thrusting and grunting in the shattered greenhouse behind Stella's house. Or perhaps nobody pays any mind because during their first coupling, Edgar lasts but a few seconds -- which really calls into question Stella's attraction to him. She's not necessarily crazy, but, given the selection of men from which she has to choose, just a little desperate.
Just as word finally gets round the grounds that Stella -- who spends half the movie just getting dressed and undressed -- and Edgar are wild about each other, he escapes for the squalid back alleys of London, where he's taken up with his former assistant, Nick (Sean Harris), who's recruited to bring Stella to Edgar's decrepit loft. She happily ditches Max and ten-year-old son Charlie (Gus Lewis), and the threesome briefly share a boho paradise -- loads of drinking and fucking and posing and sketching and sculpting -- till, of course, Nick informs Stella that Edgar's "turning." It's all downhill from there.
Near this point, Mackenzie's given the chance to redeem the movie (and novel) by slamming shut the asylum doors behind Stella, whose abandonment of her family is read as mad behavior by her husband and Peter, whose motives become more questionable but are never made quite clear. He tells Stella he's interested only in "the passion of others," but it comes off like a creepy come-on; still others think he prefers the company of men, specifically Edgar. Perhaps he really craves to be the meat in the wacky sandwich.
Early in the movie, Stella's seen walking through the asylum, down a brightly lit yellow-painted corridor that veers off into the dim shadows where female prisoners are kept. There, from behind the bars of her cage, an old woman asks Stella how she managed to end up on the other side when clearly she belongs among the lunatics. It's a nicely staged scene, and an even better setup for what's to come -- a joke awaiting its kinky punch line. But Mackenzie goes too far, nudged along by McGrath's novel and Marber's screenplay, which feel the need to torture poor Stella and wind up doing likewise to the audience, till tension turns to titters and we're left caring not at all about anyone at all.