Sunday, September 04, 2005

Rant: Notes on David Mackenzie's Asylum

(David Mackenzie, 2005, UK, 93 minutes) 

Boy, did the critics—and yes, I'm purposefully referring to them as a nameless, faceless mass, but then the film was reviewed that way—miss the boat on Asylum. I was planning to see it anyway, but a couple of nice write-ups in Salon and Sight & Sound encouraged me to hasten my trip to Seattle's Uptown Theater. I'm glad I made it before it left town. The Edukators, which received better reviews and which I was also looking forward to seeing, had a much shorter run. Consequently, I completely missed it. That said, I was the only person in a 515-capacity theater for a 5pm matinee. Boy is that depressing. For the film, not for me.

In any case, despite the asylum setting, the film isn't gothic. It is dark, in both senses of the word, and has elements of noir, but it's really a melodrama, despite a very subtle score. It's unclear to me why it wasn't reviewed as such. And although it looks a bit like David Cronenberg's Spider--also based on a Patrick McGrath novel--it doesn't feel like it, so that comparison is pretty misleading.

Further, contrary to most other reviewers, I found Stella quite sympathetic; Natasha Richardson does an excellent job. Yes, she makes some terrible decisions, but that's the point. There are no "good"—or even better—options available to her. She's damned if she does, damned if she doesn't—so she does.

Like Vera Drake or Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, she's
a modern woman living in archaic times. She's also trapped in a loveless marriage and bored to tears. The only bright spot: her son Charlie. When handsome inmate Edgar (Marton Csokas) takes a shine to her boy and then to her, what's she supposed to do? He even warns her, seconds after they meet, "I killed my wife." She could run away, she could ask why, but she does none of those things. Why? Because she doesn't care. She's attracted, interested--hooked.

And that's the biggest problem with many of the reviews—the writers are putting themselves in her place and saying, basically, she shouldn't have gotten involved with the guy, but they're not her (next they'll be saying Othello shouldn't have listened to Iago...). It's a specious argument. She isn't an idiot, just desperate. So, along comes Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen) to warn her away from Edgar. Does she listen? Of course not. I strongly disagree, by the way, that he's a bad guy—not until the end, at any rate. The advice he gives Stella is actually quite sound, but she suspects he has ulterior motives, and she's right.

Granted, Cleave ends up making some pretty bad decisions himself, but he ends up paying for them just as dearly as Stella does hers.

In fact, everybody loses in the end, and maybe that's too bitter a pill for some critics to swallow, but any kind of a happy ending would have invalidated the entire enterprise.

I could go on, but I won't. I doubt it compares to the book, but as a film in and of itself, Asylum deserves much better than it's gotten. And I liked the nods to Leave Her to Heaven and Vertigo, especially since they were thematic rather than stylistic homages (I'm assuming those sequences came straight from the book, but couldn't say for sure).

Click here for more thoughts about the film and the star

Images: IMDb (Richardson and Csokas), Senses of Cinema (Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert), and Google Images (Kim Novak).

No comments: