Wandering off the main corridors of her new home, a sprawling mental hospital where her husband (Hugh Bonneville) has just taken a psychiatric job, Natasha Richardson comes face to face with a patient who cheerily mistakes her for an inmate and solicits her company. Richardson panics and runs for open air and the promise of sanity. As foreshadowing, the scene seems a bit too on-the-button, but in a few uncomfortable seconds, it gets to the movie's heart. If people can be sorted into the sane and insane, who gets to do the sorting? And do the walls dividing the two ever crumble?
Adapted from a novel by Spider author Patrick McGrath, Asylum takes place in the high-Freudian days of the 1950s, when psychiatry had started to flex its muscles as a science. But while this has allowed Bonneville to achieve professional success, as the film opens, Richardson has already exhausted the era's possibilities for a loving wife. She adores her 10-year-old son, but her marriage has long since faded into endless days, gray evenings sipping scotch by the fire, and badly concealed contempt. Before long, she seeks diversion in the arms of handsome inmate Marton Csokas, a failed sculptor who killed his wife after, by his account, she betrayed him. In their moments of passion, they look like two ordinary people. Eventually, Richardson stops worrying about the distinction altogether.
The film, however, wants to make distinctions, even if they don't agree with the conventional wisdom of the story's age. In his 2003 drama Young Adam, director David Mackenzie memorably explored the places where post-war passion, brutality, traditional values, and bohemian freedom intersected. Here, he's interested in other kinds of boundaries and the places where they get crossed. Is Richardson truly crazy, or has she just found an exit from an insufferable life? What's to be made of Bonneville's impeccably sane rival Ian McKellen, who quietly turns the situation to his advantage? And where is evil when moral failings have clinical treatments?
Screenwriters Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis have faithfully adapted McGrath's book, but Mackenzie's film could almost use one or two lurid touches in place of its stately distance. Then again, a more stylized approach might have allowed less room for Richardson, whose unsparing performance makes other elements almost irrelevant. Even as she slips away from what most would call a civilized life, she remains recognizably the same woman, and the film's sympathies never leave her. Whether at home or in squalor, she keeps a spark of humanity in her eyes. It doesn't look crazy at all.