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Main Cast: Natasha Richardson, Hugh Bonneville, Ian McKellan, Martin Csokas

Director: David Mackenzie

I sometimes wonder what it was really like to be a wife in the fifties. Was it filled with tea parties and housedresses? Or oppression and the stifling of individuality? Perhaps both? Whatever the truth, I seem to have plenty of company when it comes to exploring the retro-wife. My latest foray into the land of June Cleaver comes in the form of the 2005 film Asylum. In this one, June is looking just a little haggard…

Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, Asylum takes place in what looks to be 1950s England. The exact date is not revealed, but the styles and social mores fit with that time period. Natasha Richardson stars as Stella, the bored wife of Max (Hugh Bonneville), who has just taken a position as a staff physician at an asylum. They, along with their young son, are moving to the grounds of the institution as the movie opens.

Stella doesn’t really fit with the other wives, though Hugh chastises her that “this time” she will make the effort. And she does, for a while. Soon her attentions are drawn from her gardening and holiday fruitcake shopping to the man who has been set to task repairing part of the house in which she now resides. This man, Edgar (Martin Csokas), is a patient. In particular, he is a patient of Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen) who specializes in a particularly nasty type of mental illness. Stella’s interest in Edgar is only the beginning of her less than perfect wifely manner. The film follows her from the beginnings of a new life as a typical housewife into much more dangerous waters.

Director David Mackenzie lined up a terrific cast for Asylum. Richardson is on slow burn from the first moment we meet her, in a series of quiet, slow establishing shots of her tense relationship with her husband and the inherent oddness of their new home. Her quiet intensity doesn’t let up for the whole of the film, making Stella both fascinating and a little exhausting to watch. McKellen more than holds his own as the doctor with perhaps more than a detached clinical interest in both his patient and his patient’s interactions with Stella. In what might otherwise be a fairly by the numbers recounting of a Bored Housewife Gone Wild, his character and considerable screen presence add a decidedly wicked, manipulative twist to the mix.

Asylum has a lot of potential to be an interesting film. And it is, to a point. Its biggest failing is that the film takes its theme of bored housewifery, bad marriage and potentially unstable woman trapped in both and pushes them all too far. The establishing sequences of Stella’s life and her initial demeanor do little to help us understand her wild inappropriateness as the movie progresses. It’s simply too much to be believable without more understanding of Stella. There are tiny clues leading us to think she might have had issues prior to these incidents, but those are too vague to help us have pity for either her societally imposed plight or her psychologically imposed illness. Her behavior is simply too extreme to make any sense within the context we’re given.

Asylum is a decidedly adult film, with several scenes of graphic sexuality. The stellar casting of Richardson and McKellen can’t quite save the film as a whole from its own histrionics and in the end we’re left not really understanding – or much caring – what drives Stella. As a period piece examining the woes of Englishwomen in the 1950’s, it’s a rather shocking statement about the effects of an oppressive culture. Unfortunately that message is diluted by the muddled history of the main character which supersedes time period or social expectations, so any greater statements are left behind in the overall excess. If you’re a completist in regards to either Natasha Richardson or Ian McKellen, this one may be worth a watch if you can find it for free – otherwise I can’t recommend it.

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