Thursday, September 08, 2005


Preliminaries: go read PunchDrunk, because it's very good. It's also written largely by friends of mine, but trust me, if I didn't think it was any good I'd just quietly mumble at them and change the subject when they asked if I'd read it.

My iPod mass uploading programme has now reached the letter K. It turns out that I own six albums by Kid 606. Which is really weird, because I don't remember particularly liking him that much. Perhaps they breed.

But back to business. Asylum is the last hangover from my Film Festival reviews before I plough this blog into far more downmarket territory. I've held off on it because it's coming out in the UK tomorrow anyway.

It's England in the late 1950s, and reluctantly dutiful wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) is dragged along to live with her family in the lunatic asylum where her doctor husband is working. Finding the local society intolerably stifling, Stella looks for another outlet for her passions, and ends up starting a spectacularly ill-advised affair with a spectacularly ill-chosen man - Edgar, a long-term patient , who is passing the days refurbishing a metaphorical greenhouse.

You probably have a fair idea of where this story is heading, and you'd be absolutely right. What comes as a surprise is that the predictable and obvious bit of the story turns out to be act 1, after which the film goes barrelling off in increasingly strange directions. Meanwhile, Ian McKellan's ultra-manipulative psychiatrist moves quietly into the foreground, to deliver plot twists that will either make your jaw drop or leave you rolling your eyes and muttering "That's just stupid."

Some films unite the critics, some split them down the middle. Asylum has scattered them all over the place. Metacritic gives it an average rating of 51, but that's based on reviews distributed more or less evenly from 91 to 10. I think a lot of the critics are getting horribly confused because, first, they don't quite get that it's a gothic melodrama, and second, they expect it to make sense. It doesn't really make sense. The characters aren't really believable, unless you're prepared to accept that it's drawn in intentionally broad strokes. And there seems to be a school of thought that thinks it's a badly botched critique of 1950s mental health care. Er, no. It's about the thin line between obsession and insanity, if you want to boil it down to a sentence. Ultimately, two of the three leads hover in the grey area. (And the third is just way over the edge.)

This is a film of big stylized characters doing unlikely and magnified things, set off against a very restrained and underplayed visual style. Where the plot could easily have justified going way over the top, director David Mackenzie keeps the film almost painfully restrained and distant, indulging himself in the occasional visual motif to break things up a bit. Basically, though, he wants us to try and react to these characters as people rather than as potboiler fodder, and to take their story seriously no matter how bizarre it gets.

If you go in looking for psychological realism, and characters you can believe in, then you'll hate it with a passion. Mackenzie's approach almost invites this reaction, leading audiences to try and engage with the film on completely the wrong level. But if you go with the flow, and accept it for what it is - a film of ideas about people, rather than a film of people - it tells a great story. Richardson delivers a fantastic performance that makes Stella's odd behaviour always seem entirely natural. The film works because the stylised characters still feel like people at one remove - there are proper personalities in there, but distorted to fit the story.

I loved it. I'm in the minority there, admittedly. But then, I'm all for stories full of slightly abstracted ideas and slightly abstracted people.