Set in a wintry post-war England of bone-dry bureaucrats who don’t
‘have the stomach’ for real emotions, Asylum is a grim love quadrangle
between psychiatrist’s wife Stella (Richardson), and the men who
profess love, but only seek to possess her.

The first is her husband, Max (Bonneville). On paper he’s a good match
and a good man; in reality he’s an upper class twit, pathetic in his
passions and irretrievably married to his job at Broadmoor. The second
is inmate and convicted murderer Edgar (Csokas), who she falls for,
mistaking morbid sexual fascination – all gin-soaked clinches and raw,
howling violence – for attachment. The last of these hopelessly
limited, self-obsessed suitors is McKellan’s Dr Cleave, a reptilian
bachelor who toys with his patients with a sadism that presents itself
as diligence. Needless to say, there are no happy endings.

Sharp-eyed allies of the English art-house scene will have noted that
Asylum has one of the most remarkable pedigrees of recent years. The
source novel, by Patrick (Spider) McGrath is astonishing, a modern
Wuthering Heights of cracked passion and unlived lives that aches with
other people’s pain. Young Adam, MacKenzie’s debut, charted similarly
murky waters to eye-catching effect, and both McKellan and scriptwriter
Patrick Marber (Closer) are among the best Brits in their respective
businesses. But just because they feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.

The film presents a suitably austere England – at once lush and barren
– but there is little that the film-makers can do to change the fact
that the most interesting developments are internal; mute absences that
prosper only on the page, and even then between the lines. Emotional
paralysis is a near-impossible state to visualise. This is not Orwell’s
boot stamping on a human face for eternity, but the dripping tap of
daily grief.

More problematically, the four main players seem to be acting in
different films. Although it borders on blasphemy to criticise McKellan
– and he is excellent as always – his Machiavellian meddler is a
villain from the get-go, a factor neatly avoided in the novel, which
forces the reader to think the best of its narrator until the chilling
revelations of the big reveal. Bonneville is equally adept, but a
little too Dickensian, and Richardson and Csokas’s star-crossed,
stir-crazy lovers go for realism, forcing the viewer to accommodate
kitchen-sink crises and gothic grandstanding.

Far from the disaster it depicts, but unable to maintain the brilliance
it touches upon, Asylum is almost, almost there. That it can’t quite
hold together is a minor pity, rather than a major tragedy.