Passion and reason: A review of David Mackenzie’s ‘Asylum’

Long philosophical review of the film Asylumasylum-2550

(2005, Dir. David Mackenzie. Natasha Richardson, Hugh Bonneville, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas)

Passion… it lies in all of us. Sleeping, waiting, and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir, open its jaws… and howl.

Passion… is born… And though uninvited, unwelcome, unwanted… like a cancer… it takes root. It festers… it bleeds… it scabs… only to rupture.

It speaks to us, guides us; passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have?

Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief.

It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.

– Angelus

But I can’t help thinking – isn’t that where the fire comes from? Can a nice, safe relationship be that intense? I know it’s nuts, but.. part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with pain and fighting.

– Buffy (BtVS, Something Blue)


Just finished watching Asylum. It’s visually compelling, and not just because of the cast (read my more in-depth analysis of the film here). But beyond that, it is a disturbing film. The themes of love, passion, insanity…quite a bit to reflect on.

Stella, the wife of a doctor at an asylum, has a good, if bland marriage, and a son she adores. She finds a passionate affair with Edgar, a dangerous inmate with a history of murderous jealousy. Her affair continues after his escape, but ultimately ends with disastrous consequences, including the death of her son while she looks on, numb and motionless. Committed herself to same asylum where Edgar has also been returned, she is offered a marriage, a fine home, and a comfortable life by her doctor. After being falsely told by him that her lover (also a patient of this doctor – highly suspect, the only real plot flaw I can report) no longer desires to see her at a holiday ball, she leaps to her death from the clock tower of the asylum.

Definitely not a cheery flick. But it does make one ponder the nature of passion, obsession, and love. Ostensibly, the ‘real’ love in this story is Stella’s husband, father of her child. But from the beginning, despite her love for her son, we can see she is unhappy, unfulfilled, and lonely.

It is tempting to see Stella’s affair with Edgar as the ‘real’ love. It is certainly the only source of passion. He does fly into a jealous rage, and hits her, but he does not seriously harm her, despite the situation mirroring that in which he brutally beat and murdered his unfaithful wife. Yet, at every turn when we expect him to harm Stella, he does not. He tracks her from London to Wales, not for revenge, but to be reunited with her. When he learns of Stella’s impending marriage to the doctor he is furious, but he says only that her husband failed her, he himself failed her, and that the doctor will fail her as well. He submits to the doctor’s orders though, on the promise of the chance to see Stella at the ball, and he is almost childishly eager for the ball to begin, having painstakingly dressed up for her. As the strains of the waltzes from the ball echo through the corridors to Edgar’s solitary cell, where the doctor has confined him, refusing at the last moment to let him see Stella, we see him crumpled on the floor sobbing for her.

Then there is the doctor. Urbane, soft spoken, civilized and seemingly sympathetic at the outset. However, his machinations begin at unsettling, and rapidly progress to out-and-out creepy. His offer to give her a home, arrange her release into his private care seems caring. He seems for a moment to genuinely care about her, even love her. But a few scenes previous, he visits Stella’s estranged and broken husband, essentially to ask if he can have her, since the husband is obviously finished with her. Then his manipulation of both Stella and Edgar, offering each to the other like forbidden apples, only to deny them both – whether out of fear of the consequences or to cement his control over both I can’t decide….

So, the passion of a jealous murderer proves truer, more selfless, and more forgiving than either the husband or the kindly doctor. But is it love? Does Edgar find his personal redemption in Stella’s love? Did Stella find passion, love, or merely obsession? Were they doomed because of their own flaws, or the flaws of those around them? Can love spring from passion? Or are they mutually exclusive?

For me, passion is but a hair’s breadth from love, but it a different thing. Both are only a slightly thicker hair’s breadth from hatred, rage, despair or madness. There can be passion without love, certainly, and there can, I think, be a certain kind of love without passion. Not the kind of love I would choose…

Were I Stella, I have to say I would choose Edgar. The fiercest fire, the roughest need, the passion most primal, though brief; over the placid emptiness. To have loved and lost and all of that. (Though, I would like to think I would be smarter about it that she was, that I would certainly care better for my child, and so on. After all, Mamabear has her own passion, and a fierce and protective passion it is…) But I have ever been drawn to the lonely, the haunted, the dangerous and the forbidden. Nor have I ever been one to choose the safe path… the path of passion is that of life, after all…