Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
Pitiless, deep-shadowed, and starkly erotic, the films of David Mackenzie are among the very silliest being made in Britain today. Both Young Adam—the director’s second feature, but his first to get a U.S. commercial release—and the new Asylum handle laughably melodramatic plots with humorlessness of exceptional purity. Although derived from novels by different authors, each movie shares such motifs as adultery, drowning, and intense, uncomfortable screwing. Like its predecessor, Asylum is set during the ’50s, when men were men and women were, apparently, sex-starved blockheads. But it shifts from the working class to the gentry, substantially expanding the possibilities for inadvertent comedy. Freshly arrived at the dismal yet leafy psych-hospital campus where her husband has been installed as assistant director, Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) has little to do but chain-smoke, ignore 10-year-old son Charlie (Gus Lewis), and shock everyone by wearing a black dress with a plunging neckline to a staff party. Her husband (Hugh Bonneville) is well-meaning, inclined toward decorous understatement, and anxious to please his new boss (Joss Ackland). Anyone can see, however, that the real power rests with the hospital’s authority on sexual obsessions, Dr. Cleave (absurdly creepy Ian McKellen), an epicene manipulator who says he never married because he doesn’t have “the stomach” for eros. That’s certainly not true of Stella, who finds herself drawn powerfully to one of the patients, Edgar (Marton Csokas), a sculptor-turned-gardener who’s skilled with his hands and kind to Charlie. By the time Stella lifts her skirt for one of Mackenzie’s trademark rough-and-rushed couplings, she already knows Edgar’s secret: It seems she’s fallen in love with a man who beat his wife to death in a fury of insane jealousy. (Oops!) Numerous complications and changes of scenery ensue as Cleave’s influence increases, lives are ruined, and the death rate mounts well above Young Adam’s. Adapted from Patrick McGrath’s book by scripters Chrysanthy Balis and Patrick Marber, Asylum aspires to redirect thriller-flick tropes to social critique. But its principal assessment is that repressed ’50s Britain was one big madhouse—to which the only reasonable response is OK, OK! Now let us out! —Mark Jenkins