Think 'English period drama' and you'll think stately homes, genteel garden parties and Maggie Smith popping up as an eccentric elderly relative. Asylum, however, is directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam) and written by Patrick Marber (Closer), a pair more fascinated with the darkside of the soul than fine china and plummy badinage. No surprise they bypassed EM Forsterin favour of Patrick Spider McGrath's modern gothic novel, then, the source material making for an assured and tragic tale in which sexual obsession is entwined with violence and pain.
Asylum opens with Max's bachelor colleague Peter (Ian McKellen) telling Stella that "passion is a dangerous sport". And so it turns out, a seemingly throwaway quip taking on prophetic weight as Stella prepares to sacrifice her family life in favour of living incognito with her fugitive lover in London. Not that events are shown from her point of view: it's the sly, manipulative Peter who emerges as the key character, his proprietoral interest in both Edgar (Marton Csokas) and Stella growing ever more chilling.
Asylum is a psychological drama of considerable power, Mackenzie making the most of his Broadmoor-esque setting as his camera lingers on long, shadowy corridors, sombre cells and forbidding gates. Notable, too, that it's male authority figures who control the patients' lives, the hospital serving as an effective metaphor for the patriarchal society of '50s Britain. Like Young Adam, Asylum has plenty to say about sexual entrapment and transgression, Stella's affair being as much to do with her refusal to comply with the cake-baking conformity of the other doctors' wives as her lust for Edgar.
Sometimes feeling a little rushed in its execution, Asylum is hamstrung by New Zealander Csokas' lack of emotional intensity. But while the role of Edgar cries out for a Daniel Day-Lewis or even a Daniel Craig, there's no faulting the performances of McKellen, Richardson or Bonneville. Recommended - as long as you don't expect Mackenzie and Marber to provide a happy ending.
Bleak and steely, this intelligently crafted account of a catastrophic love affair is well worth gritting your teeth for.