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Gracefully Insane:
Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital

. "Asylum"

Sometimes a psycho drama, like psychotherapy itself, involves the keepers of the inmates. Or, as in this case, the housewife of a newly appointed Deputy Superintendent at a high-security hospital for the criminally insane who has brought his wife and son to live with him on the grounds of the institution sometime in the late 1950s.

It's an important appointment for forensic shrink Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville), a highly ambitious man who never strays from the letter and spirit of propriety. Superior as he is smug, he exudes confidence in the boardroom as he delivers his professional opinions and in the bedroom, where he exacts a like-minded conformity from Stella (Natasha Richardson), who tends toward freer forms of expression.

Finding none of the other "faculty" wives adventurous in mind or spirit, she's loathe to fit into their carefully prescribed regimen that meets all the specs of "The Stepford Wives." The atmosphere is too enclosed for her haughty rejection of ties to these women not to come to the attention of the clubby group, the administrators and, of course, to husband Max.

Upon his dire plea, she makes the effort and, even, agrees to responsibility for a dish in the upcoming pot luck dinner. Dutiful indeed. Making the effort to fit in. Something to help fill her dreary day with hubby so involved in his work. Lots of time on her hands. Lots of unmet needs. Obedient when appearances demand it; flights of fancy for an inner life.

Into this picture comes inmate Edgar Stark, gardener, handy man, ex-sculptor, and handsome in a virile way. Edgar is a patient under the close watch of Dr. Peter Cleve (Ian McKellan) who has been in line for the position that Max now occupies. A scheming man, he's none too happy about the turn of events in the institution's lack of appreciation for his exemplary service and his qualifications for the job. For this, he has head Superintendent Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland) to thank.

Stark is more scheming than Cleve. He's also intelligent and cleverly manipulative. And, when he pleads with Cleve for his release, we begin to pick up why such an intelligent and well behaved patient will probably never see the light of freedom. Insane wife killers are not good candidates for the streets.

So, with a profile like this, it's interesting when Stella keeps crossing his path. Then it gets to be little visits. Then, outright trysts on campus, and a full blown love affair with wild positions, steamy passion and all the fornication to satisfy a fixation and to raise a scandal. Both of which prove to be nastily penalizing and unrevokable.

Does this sound hot, or what? It's an all right film with the overwrought lust and passion dynamics of a Harlequin novel but the outstanding cast makes it downright therapeutic. You almost don't need to say anything about McKellen, he's so superb in everything he does, and he's masterful in this contained, morbid role. Czokas is certainly nothing if not a convincing sex object, as broodingly attractive as he is mad.

Joss Ackland is surprisingly enjoyable and consistent as the head man and Hugh Bonneville is more than merely functional in a tricky role that demands as much pride swallowing as bluster. But, when all is said and done, it's Richardson picture. This is her moment in the spotlight which she fulfills with every part of her soul and well proportioned body. It may be the quintessential role of a career that, it has seemed to me, to be in need of the "right" starring roles.

In the lovemaking vignette, the music track assists with a pulsing, melodic rhythm. Original music is by Marc and Steffan Fantini and Mark Mancina. Giles Nuttgens photographed with atmospheric precision. David Mackenzie ("Young Adam") directed. Patrick Marber wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Patrick McGrath.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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He summed it up exactly how I felt about this movie. It had me hooked right from the start and the performances from the actors were astounding.

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Miranda Richardson with Martin Czokas
Repression leading to obsession

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