Dir:David Mackenzie. UK-Ire. 2005. 93mins.

A dark, assured period piece about passion and madness, and the way societyrestrains them, Asylum is a much slicker product than Scottish directorDavid Mackenzie's previous outing, Young Adam.

It has not had an easygestation: US distributor Paramount has been involved since Patrick McGrath'snovel was published in 1997; Jonathan Demme was originally attached to direct,and Stephen King made an early stab at adapting the book. But the finishedarticle wears its development hell lightly.

Patrick Marber's finalscript waltzes cleverly across genre borders: the film evolves gradually fromSirk-like woman's melodrama to Hitchcockian psychological thriller toout-and-out Greek tragedy. English-language audiences will perhaps be swayed bythe Richardson-McKellen double billing on the posters, but upbeat word-of-mouthand critical buzz will do more here and elsewhere to persuade punters to stumpup for this bleak tragic parable.

Critical reactions at Berlin- where the film screened in competition - were mixed, as they were for Birthin Venice last year, another dark, stylish psycho-trip. Like Birth, Asylumwill appeal to audiences who enjoy a well-crafted style exercise and areprepared to indulge the occasional mannerist touch.

The asylum of the title is amental home for the criminally insane, to which young psychiatrist Max Raphael(Hugh Bonneville) has just been appointed deputy superintendent. The time isthe late 1950s, but this is not the dour post-war Scotland of Young Adam.

Raphael and his dangerouslyattractive wife Stella (Richardson) are middle-class southern English, and shein particular has a taste for high living and low necklines which is badlyserved by the provincial, closed community of doctors and doctors wives thatshe has been thrust into.

The lack of air, the feelingof being trapped, is mediated by dark, sombre colours and stifling interiors -whether they be the corridors of the asylum or the bourgeois home that Stellais supposed to take pride in. When Edgar (Csokas), a patient confined formurdering his wife, is sent to fix up the greenhouse, Stella can't helpcontrasting his rash impetuosity with her husband's prudish reserve, and it'sLady Chatterley all over again.

Marber - author of stage playCloser and its recent screen adaptation - has a good ear for thelow-level bickering that marks a soured relationship. Some care has gone intothe character of the husband, an uptight, mother-dominated careerist - finelyrendered by Hugh Bonneville - who is finally, in bitter decline, allowed hisown sympathy quotient.

Natasha Richardson is alwayswatchable, but her character is flawed by its lack of backstory and itsdependence on a premise of blind, mind-corroding passion a la WutheringHeights.

Ian McKellen is suitablycreepy as the elderly psychiatrist who is Max's main rival for the top job atthe asylum, evolving elegantly from avuncular mentor to twisted, manipulativepower freak. His character embodies the film's more gothic tendencies - whichalso emerge in some strongly chiaroscuro night photography and the stageyproduction design of the East End warehouse-apartment where the lovers hole upmidway through the film, all artfully broken boards and grimy bricks.

Prod cos: Seven Arts Pictures, Samson Films, Mace Neufeld Prods
Int'l sales:
Seven Arts SignatureInt'l
UK dist:
Exec prods:
Michael Barlow,Natasha Richardson, Robert Rehme, Baron Davis, Steven Markoff, Bruce McNall,Chris Curling, Harmon Kaslow, John Buchanan
Mace Neufeld, LaurenceBorg, David E Allen
Patrick Marber, from thenovel by Patrick McGrath
Giles Nuttgens
Prod des:
Laurence Dorman
Colin Monie, Steven Weisberg
Mark Mancina
Main cast:
Natasha Richardson,Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas, Hugh Bonneville, Gus Lewis, Sean Harris