Scottish director David Mackenzie seems to like the 1950s, perhaps because of the sexual repression that marked that period in Britain, and the dramatic mileage to be derived from characters busting out of the box. As with his 2003 film Young Adam, Asylum is set in the 1950s, is based on a novel (by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the source novel for Cronenberg's Spider) and features sex and adultery. But while Young Adam was a deserved critical success, Asylum really does suffer from a rush of blood to the head (or should that be the groin) and too rarely rises above its preposterous conceit.
Taking up his post as deputy superintendent of an isolated high security mental hospital, Max Raphael (Bonneville) arrives with his wife Stella (Richardson) and their young son Charlie (Lewis). Stella is clearly spirited, independently minded and bored out of her skull, not least with her husband. It's not long before she has fallen rather heavily for Edgar Stark (Csokas), an inmate with both artistic and murderous credentials. He's a brooding Mellors to Stella's Lady Chatterley.
With no one wondering why Stella is wearing make-up to the greenhouse, their illicit cavorting becomes more and more adventurous. Before they get caught, Edgar escapes: at which point what could have been dismissed as a silly fling becomes, for Stella, something far more dangerous.
There is a lot to admire in Asylum: the period is well-evoked, from the chilly halls of the asylum to the seedy bohemianism of the lovers' eventual love nest; Richardson ably conveys the scary tunnel-vision of someone in the grip of amour fou; while McKellen, as Max's slimily obsequiousness colleague Dr Cleave, a man clearly up to no good himself, enjoyably steals every scene in which he appears.
The problem is the implausibility of Stella's passion - there's just a little too much fou in this amour. Scriptwriter Patrick Marber fails to keep us on board Stella's journey. She seems far too intelligent to throw her life away on a man who mutilated his wife and is obviously two loaves shorts of a basket. By the time the film reaches its tragic finale, we've already jumped ship.