Year: 2005
Director: David Mackenzie
Writers: Patrick Barber, Chrysanthy Balis (from Patrick McGrath’s novel)
Starring: Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville

Asylum begins, like many films, with an arrival. In this case it’s the arrival at a 1950s British mental hospital of its new deputy superintendent, Dr Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Stella (Natasha Richardson from The Comfort of Strangers) and their son Charlie. Stella, less than thrilled by her new surroundings, anaesthetises herself with champagne and cigarettes while she pokes about. Her first discovery is a dilapidated greenhouse. Max’s off-the-cuff remark that they should get it fixed is the flap of a butterfly’s wing that ultimately spirals into tragedy.

A garden party to welcome the Raphaels introduces two of the film’s leading lights: jovial superintendent Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland), and the asylum’s longest-serving doctor, Peter Cleeve (Ian McKellen in an avuncular, Gandalf-without-the-pointy-hat role), who tells Stella that his specific field of interest is “sexual pathology and its associated catastrophes.” In other words, the patterns of destructive behaviour examined in Sexcatraz. Tensions soon emerge between Stella and Max, an overbearing careerist whose only concern is that his wife conforms to the Women’s Institute model of demure appearance and dutiful servitude. Here again is the overarching need for social respectability already seen with Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here and Big Joe in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Natasha Richardson, perfectly cast as Stella, uses a vague sense of fragile detachment to suggest that, on both counts, Max faces disappointment.

That just leaves Edgar Stark (a brooding Marton Csokas) to complete the main cast: he’s the inmate tasked with restoring the Raphael’s greenhouse. Unlike every other man at the asylum, Edgar is earthy and rooted in his sexuality; his frank, penetrating gaze unsettles Stella. “I killed my wife. She betrayed me,” Edgar says flatly during one encounter, leaving no room for doubt that, in sexual-political terms, he is an aggressor. The shot, through the greenhouse’s splintered windowpanes, perfectly captures his fractured psyche.

Stella’s sexuality—and Max’s inability to handle it—surface at the annual staff and patients ball. Her dress is too revealing for Max, mildly violating his sexual boundaries, triggering his shame and sense of transgression. His notion of respectability doesn’t include Stella parading before mentally unstable men in a deeply cut dress that accentuates her breasts. This is the banana-skin moment that precipitates self-destruction. Max fires a warning shot across her bows, but Stella’s tart reply ensures the two spend little time together at the ball. Max cosies up to Straffen; the superintendent is due to retire and Max seeks endorsement as his heir. Meanwhile, Edgar dances cheek to cheek with Stella. She craves eye contact but dares not keep it; the sense of her about to crack is palpable. Dr Cleeve watches from the side-line, his trained eye—and that of the audience—noting the tell tale signs of unrequited sex.


It isn’t long in coming: a quickie in, of course, the greenhouse. Edgar, a psychopath already outside society’s accepted boundaries, has no issues with screwing the deputy superintendent’s wife. But this is clearly a major transgression and the audience awaits its repercussions. Stella flees to her house, astonished by what she’s just done. Partly she feels guilty at betraying Max and fears the consequences, but another part of her feels liberated.

Stella’s repressed sexuality doesn’t just peep out like a prairie dog guarding its burrow; like the real-life Bob Crane her newly released libido cannot be contained and soon she’s living for sex with Edgar. Can she not see the writing on the wall?

Stella’s repressed sexuality doesn’t just peep out like a prairie dog guarding its burrow; like the real-life Bob Crane her newly released libido cannot be contained and soon she’s living for sex with Edgar. Can she not see the writing on the wall? No. For the simple reason, to quote social theorist Edward Carpenter, that “feeling precedes thinking[1].” If a situation violates our emotional boundaries our immediate response is always emotional. Only when a situation has no emotional triggers (i.e. no violated boundaries) are we able to respond rationally. Carpenter’s acute observation is entirely supported by the destructive behaviour seen throughout Sexcatraz.

Edgar ups the ante by servicing Stella in her own bedroom, a clear marker that he has usurped Max as her alpha male. Each tryst deepens the divide between Max and Stella, the process seemingly irreversible. We watch with morbid fascination as Stella’s misadventures spiral towards disaster. Her devil-may-care couplings hint at a desire to be caught, for her secret to be exposed, for the madness to end. This headlong sex-induced fall from grace is a staple of the erotic drama and thriller genres, though the real-life tragedies depicted in Boys Don’t Cry and Auto Focus show that sexual self-destruction is more than a mere fiction.

Definition: Sexual self-destruction

Self-destructive: “destroying or causing harm to oneself.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Destroying or causing harm to oneself through socially transgressive sexual activity that negatively affects a person’s family, job, finances, reputation, and/or mental health.

After screwing Stella in Max’s marriage bed Edgar escapes from the asylum in the boot of Max’s Jaguar, only for Charlie to raise the alarm. A hunt is organised but Edgar vanishes. A little later Stella takes the train to London. Ostensibly it’s a Christmas shopping trip, but in fact she meets Nick (Sean Harris), a down-at-heel artist acting as Edgar’s go-between who reunites the lovers. Edgar and Stella have sex in what appears to be a derelict abattoir.


The scene is artily shot with the camera tracking past a post in the foreground, obscuring the fleshy tryst behind: a subtle reminder that both showing and watching sex is taboo—yet another of our covenants, as the long history of film censorship attests.

Max becomes suspicious of Stella’s increasingly frequent London trips. Belatedly sensing that he’s losing her, his veneer of self-control cracks. Max forces himself on Stella. It’s clearly an act of violation, despite the ring on her finger that sanctions the sex according to the prevailing covenants, an echo of Albert Spica’s car bonnet sex with Georgina in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This is sex for punishment, humiliation, ownership and control; not sex for love, let alone physical pleasure. This is revenge sex; it’s how men and women treat each other inside Sexcatraz.

Stella responds by abandoning both Max and Charlie. But life in the ex-abattoir isn’t all wine, roses and the stench of long-dead cows. The sex is great but Edgar’s morbid jealousy surfaces when he discovers Nick has fallen in love with Stella and beats the life out of his erstwhile friend. Boundary, violation, reaction… Stella knows she’ll be next, yet she stays, her craving for self-destruction equalling her hunger for Edgar. A detective hired by Cleeve saves Stella by returning her to the asylum.

It’s only temporary. Cleeve has replaced Straffen as the superintendent and dismissed Max, who moves the family to a hospital in North Wales where no one knows Stella’s past. This is the paper-over-the-cracks aspect of sexual shame at work. Stella is reunited with Charlie. “Are you better now,” he inquires, displaying the same association between sex and mental illness previously seen in Wish You Were Here. But the battle lines remain: Max sleeps in a separate room, too ashamed of Stella’s philandering to share a bed with his sexually soiled wife[2]. The covenants Max has unconsciously bought into—and is too emotionally rigid to do anything other than uphold—allow no path back to intimacy.

Stella tries to rebuild the family through Charlie and accompanies him on a school trip to a lake. There’s a chilling inevitability to the scene: he plays amid the rocks and shoals while she is lost in sexual obsession. Charlie falls in; a teacher appears too late to save him.


Stella’s lust has cost the life of her child, Max his career, and robbed her marriage of everything but the registry entry. Max vents his fury but, trapped in a straightjacket of sexual reserve and professional dignity, all he can do is bitterly describe Stella’s future in terms of a clinical diagnosis. It comes as a relief when Dr Cleeve slams a car door in his face.

For Stella it’s back to the asylum, this time for good. Her uncontrolled passion is a menace to decent society and for everyone’s sake she is given a cold shower and locked away. This is an Anglicised, marginally more dignified version of the treatment meted out in The Magdalene Sisters. Of course, Cleeve has a pat solution to all this discontent. He has fallen ever so slyly for Stella. When Max requests a divorce, Cleeve arranges for her to be released on condition that she marries him. “Are you a passionate man,” she asks, in a clear indication of her priorities. Cleeve’s reply is non-committal; a fatal mistake: the über-psychologist fails to grasp the importance of his patient’s question. Stella agrees to marry Cleeve only because it promises access to Edgar, now brooding in solitary confinement.

Driven by professional vanity, Dr Cleeve agrees to let both Edgar and Stella attend the annual ball (yes, the years just roll by in the asylum). She even trots out the same V-cut dress that disturbed Max the previous year. But at the last moment Cleeve’s nerve fails and he prevents Edgar’s ingress. Edgar’s no-show brings icy clarity to Stella: she climbs to the top of the asylum, jumps off the roof and crashes through a conservatory. Only in death does she find her true asylum. Stella has sensed the walls of Sexcatraz surrounding her and understood what our society in general has not: because her sexual impulses lie outside those sanctioned by the majority (and enforced through the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction) she has only two choices—misery or death. Stella knows she can never truly belong to a community that restricts her sexuality and chooses the cleanliness of death.


Robert in The Comfort of Strangers, Bob Crane in Auto Focus and Asylum’s Stella Raphael are three very different protagonists but they share a common trait: despite being presented with numerous ‘choice points’ where they could have altered the trajectories of their lives, none of them could control the profound urges that put them in conflict with the sexual covenants of their host environments. Other recent real-life cases such as Canadian Air Force officer Russell Williams[3] and London taxicab driver John Worboys[4] have found themselves just as unable to stop either harming others or their own self-destructive slide. The Warboys case in particular reminds us that for every victimiser there may be, literally, hundreds of victims and, overwhelmingly, the majority are women. Whether we look at transgressors who harm others—such as Robert in The comfort of Strangers—or those who principally harm themselves—Bob Crane and Stella Raphael—our covenants are failing and our entire sexual worldview with them.

At the climax of Asylum, Stella Raphael concludes that she cannot live in a world where her innate sexuality places her in an unresolvable conflict with her community. Her suicide signals a belief that there is no escape from Sexcatraz, a verdict seconded by the real-life deaths of Teena Brandon and Bob Crane. Even if we are not personally involved in the highly damaging situations portrayed in these films, we are all potential victims of others who fail to control their transgressive urges. In this sense we are all prisoners of Sexcatraz.

We must escape from Sexcatraz—but how?

Next: The mechanics of shame


[1] Carpenter, an early advocate of homosexual rights, wrote this in his 1899 book Civilization: its Cause and Cure, where he argues that civilization is an illness that no human society has yet survived. Unless we escape from Sexcatraz we shall only add weight to Carpenter’s argument.

[2] There’s an echo here of the ancient Catholic belief that “it is bigamy to continue to sleep with one’s wife after she has slept with someone else.” (G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History)

[3] Russell Williams, who piloted Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Canada, was convicted in October 2010 on two counts of first-degree murder, sexual assault and numerous other charges relating to his disturbed sexuality.

[4] Known as the ‘Black Cab Rapist’, John Warboys drugged women with sedative-laced champagne before raping them. Since his conviction in March 2009 on multiple counts of rape, sexual assault and drugging, the police have received over a hundred more complaints.

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