ASYLUM — ** — Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen; rated R (violence, sex, profanity, nudity, brief drugs, brief gore).

"Asylum" is maddening. This yawn-inducing, superficial psychological thriller takes a good cast and well-regarded source material (Patrick McGrath's best-selling novel) and does nothing with them.

Well, that's not completely true. The film manages to turn potentially interesting characters into caricatures and potentially heady material into soap-opera melodrama.

If the film had a happy — well, happier, at least — ending, it could have wound up on the Lifetime cable network. There's little to distinguish it from any number of films that network has produced.

Natasha Richardson deserves better. She stars in this '50s period piece as Stella Raphael, whose husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), has just been appointed the new assistant superintendent at a British sanitarium.

Rather than socialize with the wives of the other psychiatrists, the bored Stella has befriended one of the patients, Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas) — and he, in turn, has befriended her son, Charlie (Gus Lewis, last seen as the young Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins").

Soon the two are involved in a torrid affair. But Edgar's therapist, Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), has warned Stella that Edgar's not the charmer he appears to be. He is serving time for the murder and mutilation of his unfaithful wife.

New Zealand actor Csokas ("The Great Raid") is clearly trying to look and act like his countryman, Russell Crowe. But his performance lacks the menace it should have, and there's never any indication why Stella decides to have an affair with him anyway.

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Co-screenwriter Patrick Marber should have known better than to take so many liberties with the material (he is a playwright, after all). And he and director David Mackenzie aren't clear about what they're trying to say with the film.

As for Richardson, her performance can best be described as brave (especially considering some of the racier scenes). The one thing the film has going for it is the always-watchable McKellen, but he's played this kind of role before in better movies.

"Asylum" is rated R for a couple of strong scenes of violence (including the brutal beating of a woman), simulated sex and other sexual contact, occasional use of strong sexual profanity, full female and brief partial male nudity, brief drug content (including hypodermic use) and brief gore. Running time: 97 minutes.