Set in the wintry tones of 1950's England Asylum follows a confused woman Stella (Natasha Richardson) who has too much time on her hands. Her husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) an ambitious forensic psychiatrist has been hired to treat patients at a criminal psychiatric hospital and soon the married couple along with their 10-year-old son Charlie (Gus Lewis) are living on the hospital's grounds. Unstable as she is Stella soon falls for a pathological inmate named Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas) smitten with his mysterious volatility. Problem is Edgar murdered his wife. But Edgar and Stella begin a lusty affair anyway and Stella's family life dissolves into shambles. Jealous doctor Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen) accelerates the breakdown. Asylum is about trapped troubled people confined by their own limitations.
This eclectic ensemble of Britain's finest thespians (and one New Zealander) is Asylum's strongest suit as they play up their worst behaviors. Richardson excels as the detestable Stella letting her fawn-like yet manic eyes do the talking during extended facial close-up scenes. Richardson captures Stella's addiction to helplessness. McKellen (up next in X-Men 3) wields a strong quietness commanding attention with his unpredictable acerbic intentions. As the asylum's voice of authority McKellen makes us believe he belongs in the institution. But the heaviest lifting is left to Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven The Great Raid) who must be at once brooding and pacifying as a wife murderer. Csokas' combination of desirable and repulsive works with mixed results though they are satisfactory. His allure is functional.
The mushy form of Stella's descent makes Asylum feel like a long misdirected slog even though it's only 97 minutes long. There isn't much of a story unfolding; instead it's more of a zigzag-wandering around the stations of grief. Edgar's crazy Stella's in love with him and that's Asylum. The film also often shifts locations without engaging the audience to care. Certain scenes are indeed devastating true to Asylum's grief-stricken story. Director David MacKenzie (Young Adam) shows some chops with his visual narrative style. But the story runs into the ground repeatedly like a nihilistic jackhammer. The direction then seems more like an irritant.