Directed by David Mackenzie, starring Natasha Richardson, Martin Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Gus Lewis, Sean Harris and Joss Ackland.

Having made such a strong impression with the Ewan McGregor-starring 'Young Adam', director David Mackenzie returns to the themes of obsession, betrayal and lust for his follow-up. Adapted from the Patrick McGrath novel of the same name, Mackenzie's 'Asylum' gives Natasha Richardson her best role in years and drags the viewer headfirst into a downward spiral.

Psychiatrist Max Raphael (Bonneville) moves with his wife Stella (Richardson) and young son Charlie (Lewis) to take up a key post at a high security psychiatric institution in the north of England. Max is on the fast-track to becoming the new superintendent of the hospital, a fact that hasn't gone down too well with the institution's longest-serving doctor, Peter Cleave (McKellen).

Nor has Max's career advancement done much to improve his relationship with Stella, their 12-year-old marriage now a case of going through the motions and presenting a united front. But Stella's repressed passion is re-ignited when she meets Edgar (Csokas), an inmate who murdered his wife in his former life as an artist. The two begin an affair, which moves quickly from secrecy to discovery and ultimately becomes a full-blown scandal when Edgar escapes from custody. But is the turmoil that has engulfed Max and Stella just a series of chance events colliding or is it part of someone's bigger plan?

Just as there are musicians' musicians, so too are there actors' films and while 'Asylum' rushes the affair between Stella and Edgar, there isn't a line out of place or a scene overdone. Capturing the stultifying atmosphere of society in late 1950s Britain, Mackenzie's film injects you with a sense of dread from the outset - the knowledge that however things end, 'well' won't be an option.

Against this backdrop, the four leads turn in unshowy performances, which makes the film all the more powerful and finds the viewer forced to shift allegiances repeatedly as the story progresses. For Richardson this should be one of the defining films of her career; Csokas mixes attraction and menace just right as the tortured artist, Bonneville again shows he deserves bigger roles and in a career of plaudits, McKellen adds more to the stockpile as the eerie Cleave. It's a disappointment that he doesn't have even more scenes in the film, but each one sticks in the memory long after the final hand has been dealt.

Harry Guerin