Happily never after: Subverting the romantic in David Mackenzie’s Asylum

Originally submitted 14 Feb, 2013

If any culture as wildly diverse as America’s can be said to have a central value, it is most definitely the romantic ideal. All the core American values—family, the American dream, the triumph of the underdog, even the ideal of faith and its rewards—are firmly rooted in the romantic ideal. The problem with the romantic ideal, however, is its fundamental untenability. It has been the role of the great modern tragedians (of whom there are lamentably few), to expose the lie beneath that ideal.

Of those tragedians, arguably the greatest is Henrik Ibsen, whose cycle of prose plays built an increasingly eloquent critique of modern society and its obsession with the romantic. Ibsen’s characters, the women in particular, are trapped in romanticized prisons, denied not merely actual autonomy, but denied authenticity, the freedom to become fully-realized beings. As Ibsen’s protagonists struggle towards a freedom they themselves scarcely understand, each movement seems to tighten their prison, and the very struggle itself is dismissed as madness. The men in Ibsen’s prose plays fare little better, for the fatal flaw of the romantic trope is that it allows them only two roles: weak and ineffectual losers, or rapacious, controlling monsters.

Enter David Mackenzie’s 2005 film, Asylum, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath. Mackenzie’s effort is by no means flawless, nor does he achieve the tightly-packed and elegant craftsmanship of Ibsen’s plays. It is worth noting, however, that Asylum does at times, whether by accident or design, read a bit like a stage play. More importantly, Asylum explores the ramifications of the romantic trope, offering a woman trapped in an Ibsen-esque existence, surrounded by men of both the above types.

The film revolves around Natasha Richardson’s Stella Raphael, a young mother, wife of a psychiatrist recently employed at a remote English asylum. Her husband, Max Raphael, played with pleasing stodginess by Hugh Bonneville, treats her much as the wives in Ibsen’s plays are treated, as decorative pets (he even calls Stella his “favorite patient”) with no authentic existence of their own.  Everywhere she turns, passion is equated with madness. 

In what could easily be the most stunning visual in the film, Stella, having taken a wrong turn in the hospital, stands at the juncture of two corridors; the public wing bright and sunny, the other dark and shadowed, echoing with the cries of the inmates, the realm of the mad. Stella is trapped in this moment, caught between the worlds of sanity and madness. We have already seen enough of Stella’s existence to question which is which, however.

Stella soon develops a deeply passionate sexual relationship with Edgar Stark, a sculptor and artist confined to the asylum for the last six years after brutally murdering his unfaithful wife in a jealous rage. I find it no coincidence that Edgar is an artist. As noted by Paul Binding in his commentary on Ibsen, many of the most tormented characters in Ibsen’s plays exhibit the same artistic temperament, seemingly so prone to the paroxysms of emotion inherent in the romantic ideal. (Binding, 12-14)

It is also significant that their affair begins in the ruined shell of the Raphaels’ greenhouse, which Edgar has been assigned to repair. As their affair goes on, it is always set in ruined places; both lovers are broken, and never are we led to think they will build anything ‘stable.’ However, as Edgar’s darkly possessive passion plays out (beautifully acted by the relatively unknown New Zealand actor, Marton Csokas), we are made to expect that he will turn on Stella. Even Edgar’s best friend Nick, who aids the couple’s clandestine meetings after Edgar’s escape, warns Stella “He is turning. I’ve seen it before. Please don’t stay with him.”

Stella does stay, preferring a potentially brutal, though genuine existence to the crushing prison of nonexistence her former life offered her. Eventually she leaves her husband and son to live with Edgar in a demolished London flat. There they share, if briefly, a passionate, Dionysian bohemian existence. 

If this is Stella’s moment of freedom, possibly even of becoming, it cannot last. We know Edgar and Stella cannot find happily ever after; no more than Romeo and Juliet can live on to bicker over the laundry. To imagine them having a future is an insult to the emotion of such a moment. To refer back to Ibsen, even where a tragic protagonist may find a moment of glory, it must then fall to ruin. Consider Rubek and Irene in When We Dead Awaken; having reached the summit of sun-drenched glory, they cannot return to the valley. Only apotheosis or avalanche awaits them and we know apotheosis is not possible; this is a tragedy, after all. 

Edgar’s violently jealous nature emerges again when he accuses Stella of flirting with Nick. He knocks her to the floor, and looms over her, sharpening a massive knife. However, in just the sort of inversion this film executes so well, he uses it to slice an apple, and feeds Stella a piece, telling her that when his wife betrayed him, she tried to poison him. We immediately assume this is simply his “morbid jealousy,” but again, Edgar’s next moment shakes our certainty. As Stella bites down on the apple, Edgar brings the rest up to his own mouth, and bites deeply, before he can know if it is indeed, poisoned. In that moment it becomes plausible that it might be poisoned, but he seems not to care, willing to die if it is. The action of the film simply moves on, however, and this tidbit is left for us to ponder. Part of the genius of this film is its ability to make the character who should be the most monstrous—the psychotic killer—seem sympathetic; we feel Edgar’s fear of heartbreak.

Further complicating the narrative is Dr. Peter Cleave, the urbane, cultured, and unabashedly creepy doctor in charge of Edgar’s case. Cleave, played with a silky sleaziness by Sir Ian McKellen, is obsessed with Edgar, and we see almost from the beginning that Cleave will never let Edgar go. When Edgar escapes the asylum and Stella follows him, it is Cleave who orchestrates not only Stella’s capture and return, but her husband’s ruin as well. We only then discover that Max was poised to bypass Cleave for promotion to heading the asylum, though we suspect that Cleave’s motives have more to do with his obsession with Edgar.

Stella and Max are exiled by the scandal to a far more remote locale, and Stella’s life, already stultifying and meaningless, shrinks exponentially. She rallies for a while, rebuilding her relationship with her son. 

Edgar, however, has eluded capture, and tracks Stella to her new home. We watch his dogged pursuit, overlaid with the dialog of Max and Cleave, the latter warning the former to expect the worst if Edgar should find Stella. When they meet, again in a ruined building, we see Edgar surprise Stella, his hand shooting out as though to grasp her throat. We are certain Edgar’s colors will show, and the killer will emerge. But again, we have been misled. Edgar moves to caress her cheek, he smiles (arguably the most genuine smile in the entire film) and holds her gently. He begs her to come away with him, but she refuses; she cannot leave her son again. 

Edgar is captured then; Max and Cleave have followed Stella, and Edgar is beaten down dragged away. We are left uncertain if Stella was complicit in his capture, or if Edgar thinks himself betrayed by her. Stella’s last hope of freedom is crushed, however. Soon after, in one of the more disturbing scenes in an already disquieting film, Stella watches as her son drowns, only snapping out of her stupor when it is too late. We are never certain if she is so catatonic that she is unaware of what is happening, or if there is some intent behind her inaction. The romantic ideal tells us a mother will give all of herself for her children, but we are left asking if Stella is merely too damaged to love, or if she sacrifices her child as the last barrier to her own becoming. As with so many such questions, Asylum does not provide us with an answer. Answers, the film suggests, are no easier to obtain than freedom.

Max then effectively sells her back to Dr. Cleave, telling him he doesn’t even want to know what becomes of her. Again, I am reminded of Ibsen, and his damning critique of the transactional nature of marriage in his plays. As The Doll House’s Nora, or Hedda Gabler’s titular protagonist are sold off into marriages before they even have a chance to fully grow up, Stella changes hands like livestock.

Stella returns to the same asylum under Cleaves’ treatment. Now, with both Edgar and Stella firmly in his grip, we begin to see that the most seemingly ‘civilized,’ most urbane character is the most monstrous of all. Cleave taunts each of them with knowledge of the other’s presence, dangling the possibility of allowing them to see each other before them as bait. Edgar, silent and defiant for weeks, is finally breaks down and pleads with Cleave to see her.

Of Stella’s thoughts we are less sure; Edgar, for all his brooding menace, has proven to be far more genuine (though by no means unflawed), than the other characters. In a deeply unsettling scene, made the more so for its quiet civility, Cleave persuades Stella to marry him, telling her Max has given her over without a backward glance. Her life as his wife will be scarcely less a prison than the cell she currently inhabits, but what has she left? Again, she tries to maneuver for some modicum of freedom, but as she does so, the trap only ratchets tighter. We realize, with some shock, that Cleave’s control of Stella is far more insidious than was either Max’s or Edgar’s, and his domination of her, particularly given their relationship first as doctor and patient, more ‘violent’ then even Edgar’s explosive outburst.

The climax of the film finally offers us the chance to tally up our measure of each of the players. The annual holiday ball, the only time when male and female patients mingle socially with each other and with the staff is the setting. This is the promised moment Cleave has offered to both Stella and Edgar, the chance to see each other again. Stella wears the same dress she wore the year before, when she first danced with Edgar. We see her, nervously scanning the crowd, watching for him. And Edgar stands in his cell, fidgeting in his anxiousness; he’s cooperated, sacrificed himself and let himself be broken by Cleave for this moment; it means everything to him.

We cut to Cleave, hastening down the inmate’s hall, where he intercepts Edgar, dressed up, desperately anxious, almost sweetly nervous. We see Cleave’s face light with a malicious smile, and then we are back in the ballroom, where Stella thinks she sees Edgar, only to have the crowds part to reveal Cleave. As they dance, he tells her he went looking for Edgar, and found him asleep. When awakened, he tells her, Edgar had changed his mind, and din’t want to see her. We of course, know this is a lie, he has never planned to let Edgar see her. Cleave’s smug satisfaction here reveals him fully at last; he believes he has broken them both, these toys of his with which he is so obsessed. We may perhaps add to the romantic trope this film sets out to assassinate the notion that successful, genteel people are good people, that doctors are good people. In Asylum, appearances are deceiving, and the most monstrous may be the best dressed, and the killer the most human.

As the ladies leave the ball, Stella turns away at the same juncture where she stood frozen earlier, and heads to the roof of the building.  We cut to Edgar in his cell, broken, sobbing, clawing at the door. Back to Stella, we see her emerge onto the roof, and with more determination that we have yet seen from her, she walks to the ledge and without pausing, steps off.  When Cleave reaches her, broken and bloody, she tells him “Leave. Me. Alone.” Like Hedda Gabler, Stella has only this avenue left to her, only this act of defiance, only this escape. However, unlike Hedda, Stella becomes, if only for a moment, free and fully-realized.

For Stella, this is certainly not a happy ending, any more than any of Ibsen’s heroines have happy endings. Such are not the stuff of tragedies. No one is redeemed, everyone loses, and love does not win out. Indeed, the romantic notion of the passionate affair is shown to be every bit as untenable as the stale trope of proper marriage it purported to overcome. Even the most basic principle of love, that of the mother’s love for her child fails in the face of such dysfunction. We are not certain as we leave the film if anyone knows what it is to love, or what it is to be really, authentically human. Of all the characters we have met, the one that might, perhaps be said to come closest to achieving humanity is the last one we would expect: the jealous killer. Edgar tells Cleave shortly before the ball “Her husband failed her, I failed her, and so will you.” Of all of them, Edgar is the only one to consider someone else, the only one to possibly recognize his own flaws. For a brief moment we wonder if redemption might be within Edgar’s reach. However, we are denied satisfaction even here, for we know, left as we are with Edgar, now utterly broken and forever under Dr. Cleaves’ control, that the future holds no hope even for him.


Works Cited

Asylum. Dir. David Mackenzie. Perf. Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas, and Hugh Bonneville. Paramount Classics, 2005. Film.

Binding, Paul. With Vine Leaves in His Hair: The Role of the Artist in Ibsen’s Plays. Norwich, UK., Norvick Press, 2006. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll House” Four Major Plays: Volume I. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: Signet, 1992. 39-114. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler” Four Major Plays: Volume I. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: Signet, 1992. 217-304. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. When We Dead Awaken.  Trans. Robert Brustein. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Print.