Indeed, this is a thriller sans any kick at all, a snapshot of obsession that's less about the risks one takes for true love than it is about the dumb chances one takes when stifled and bored and game for any sort of excitement at all. (It's ironic, of course, that there's none to be found here.) The best you can say of Asylum is that it plays like a topless Twilight Zone (Richardson, bless her heart, disrobes for two totally pointless bathtub scenes intended to depict her sad, soggy state of mind) -- or it would have, had it ended long before it peters out in predictably irksome what-the-fu fashion.
That's actually the fault of McGrath, whose novel is faithfully adapted by Marber and director David Mackenzie, whose big-screen take on the novel Young Adam last year explored similar areas -- which is to say, those between the bellybutton and knee-caps and how nutty people get whenever they're allowed access to that particular promised land. Alas, McGrath intended his novel as something more profound than a kinky joke; his was a horror story set in a mental asylum nestled in the lovely English countryside, where the patients are allowed only glimpses of the pastoral freedom they'd never again know. But Asylum, the book, is played more like a spooky soap opera -- a Harlequin romance by way of Sigmund Freud.
The movie winds up equally lurid and tame: It wants to cut loose, to let itself get swept up in the rapturous whirlwinds of dumbfounding passion and orgasmic obsession, but it hasn't the guts to go nuts. Instead, it feels as bored as Stella, who's tethered to domineering husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), recently hired as the assistant superintendent at the mental asylum, where he cares not a whit that he and his wife barely speak and that Stella spends all her time drinking, smoking, and making goo-goo eyes at Edgar, a would-be artist imprisoned for butchering his wife in a fit of jealous rage.
Early in the movie, Stella's seen walking through the asylum, down a brightly lit yellow-painted corridor that veers off into the dim shadows where female prisoners are kept. There, from behind the bars of her cage, an old woman asks Stella how she managed to end up on the other side when clearly she belongs among the lunatics. It's a nicely staged scene, and an even better setup for what's to come -- a joke awaiting its kinky punch line. But Mackenzie goes too far -- nudged along by McGrath's novel and Marber's screenplay, which feel the need to torture poor Stella and wind up doing likewise to the audience -- till tension turns to titters, and we're left caring not at all about anyone at all.