Stella (Natasha Richardson) hates her life. Or so it seems from frame one of David Mackenzie’s second film about married lady distress. The first, Young Adam, encrypted its interest in the unhappy wife by a focus on her psychopathic lover. In Asylum, she is the initial center, unraveling before your eyes.
As Asylum begins, sometime in the 1950s, Stella and her stuffily ambitious psychiatrist husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) are moving into a new home, moving slowly through rooms and not speaking to each other. The furniture is covered with sheets, the floors are shined, the champagne in the fridge serves as modest welcome to Max, new director of Broadmoor Asylum, a high-security psychiatric hospital. The couple leaves their 10-year-old son Charlie (Gus Lewis) inside as they wander, separately, over to a derelict greenhouse, where shards of glass litter the ground. “We should have this repaired,” notes Max. “Goodnight.” Got it: the marriage is broken.
The next few days reveal the extent of Stella’s frustration. At an airless garden party (no liquor, as patients are present; lots of cigarettes), she can hardly hide her boredom, eluding Broadmoor’s very proper director, Jack (Joss Acklund), and turning her attention to the arrogantly disaffected Dr. Cleve (Ian McKellen). Restricted from looking into the asylum cells, instructed to attend meetings with other staff wives, Stella sighs and fiddles with her fingers. “How did my predecessor fill her days?” she asks the maid one morning. “She sewed tapestry,” comes the answer. Stella finds another way.
His name, unsubtly, is Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas). A sculptor incarcerated for killing his wife in a jealous rage, he’s now acting as something of a maintenance man (assigned to fix the greenhouse), and technically the charge of Dr. Cleve (whose talent for “arranging things” proves particularly despicable by film’s end). After they exchange a couple of meaningful glances and Edgar saves Charlie after he’s fallen from a tree, Stella starts making some very strange and overtly bad decisions (though it’s never explained, her decision to marry Max seems a precursor to these), so fast and un-desperate that her crisp shift-dresses are barely wrinkled as she hikes them up, her red lipstick hardly smeared. Offered up in an affected, montagey sequence, their early trysts don’t suggest passion so much as a series of poses.
The affair leads to disaster — actually, a series of disasters — not least because Stella feels compelled to punish Max for his emotional abandonment, and according to the movie’s version of this environment, she has no “right” to punish, only an endless sentence to be punished. He chides her for wearing a sexy black sheath to a holiday dance, he spends all his time working, not even seeming to notice that she spends large snatches of hers in the arms of another man, though his coworkers certainly do. Asylum hints that Max’s emotional clumsiness stems from an overbearing mother (Judy Parfitt), who comes for a visit and immediately voices what everyone else is tippy-toeing around. “Is Stella behaving herself?” she asks. Max responds with the sort of sigh that means she’s hit a nerve he can’t possibly admit: “Yes, mother.”
Surrounded by this sort of oppressive hushing, Stella’s largely nonverbal relationship with Edgar looks like a form of attention. But by the time he escapes and she runs off with him to the London, leaving behind Charlie as well as Max, the movie has quite lost sight of what’s moving her. (Cleve, concerned with his missing patient, accuses Max indirectly: “Your wife destabilized him”). And much like the women in Young Adam, Stella will be punished for her insatiable desire, though that desire is vaguely understandable because Max is so difficult, though in the long run, not nearly so difficult as the increasingly violent, possessive, and off-his-meds Edgar or the increasingly meddlesome Cleve.
Though Cleve remains at the margins of the affair at Broadmoor, lasciviously remarking on Stella’s suspected activities, he comes forward once the institution, in league with the police, embarks on a search for the escapee (Cleve’s patient, after all). to his own (and the film’s) center who presses Jack and Max to pursue the escapee (his patient). He suggests they need to repair their own damaged reps, but he also wants to regain control of Edgar, whose condemnation of the doctor as an “old queen” suggests Cleve’s particular interest in Edgar, in turn complicated by Cleve’s professed interest in Stella, and then again by his absorption by the sculptor’s latest work, a teeny little bust of Stella that Cleve finds and hides away, so that he can contemplate it in private. (The film only suggests what this bust might mean to Cleve [or Edgar, for that matter], but it is a mightily creepy prop.)
As Stella recedes before this deluge of objectification — by Max, Edgar, Cleve — Richardson digs into Stella’s many moods and miscues with something like relish (though her descent into depression, physical abuse, and seeming starvation is marked primarily by dark circles under her eyes and frizzy hair). No matter Max’s sense of wounding and resentment, Stella is the film’s primary victim — again and again, she’s punished. And while you’re distanced from her repeatedly, by the end of Asylum, you feel battered as well.