FILM REVIEW: Mad to be Normal

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I’ll be honest: I’d never heard of the controversial and rebel psychologist R.D. Laing until I’d watched Mad to be Normal, a counterculture icon who attracted an almost cult-like following among the young and impressionable during the swinging sixties, but I wonder if first-time writer/director Robert Mullan, author of several books based the psychiatrist, paints the doctor in a more than favourable light.

The reason for Laing’s infamy? The psychiatrist argued that mental illness was the brain’s way of interpreting the cruel and violent realities of society and family. Laing’s residential program for patients diagnosed with schizophrenia emphasized a psychological understanding of the experience of psychosis without the use of neuroleptic (anti-psychotic) medication. He was a profound adversary of prison style asylums, preferring to allow patients and those suffering from schizophrenia to live freely amongst care workers within Kingsley Hall in East London, an experimental and revolutionary ‘self-help’ environment. Bascially, he would treat patients with a hedonistic, holistic approach: dropping LSD with them in order to help resolve trauma. Groovy, baby.

David Tennant (Doctor Who, Jessica Jones, Harry Potter) delivers an absolute mesmerising performance as R.D. Laing – drinking hard, smoking hard and laughing hard with his peers and patients alike. It’s hard not to like the man, and Mullan prefers to showcase the characters on display here, rather than be bogged down with a traditional story-line format. Support comes in the form of Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne, providing a stellar ensemble to this low budget independent production. Because of the economical nature of the film, a large portion of the movie resides within the walls of Kingsley Hall. In a way this both heightens and dampens the vibe of Mad to Be Normal. On one hand, Mullen takes care to let Laing’s hedonistic genius and charisma flow through the story-line, with one poignant (and perhaps the film’s strongest scene) involving an American patient in a padded cell. We get to see a glimpse of his method in action (talking to the patient, mirroring her actions and behaviour to get her to open up) and the whole thing looks and feels raw – almost like it could have been performed in a west end theatre; but on the other side of the coin these scenes don’t really interlink with the whole – there are times when the chronology feels disjointed and apart from a few glib, scant scenes of ‘treatment,’ you never really feel that you’re getting the full message of the work going on at Kingsley Hall.

The ending also feels a little tacked on – a simple title card gives us some exposition as closure, but it feels like Mullan’s glossing over important events. (At the climax, it’s indicated that Laing was forced to close shop in 1970 due to hostile locals in the area of East London and bureaucratic red tape, but upon further research one of the reasons may have something to do with two patients jumping from the roof – why this isn’t covered in the film could be perceived as simply wanting to celebrate what Laing was attempting to achieve with his work, rather than magnify the severe worst case scenarios of mental health, but it feels like a favourably selective representation of the man rather than all the facts.)

Mad to Be Normal is a great showcase for David Tennant’s acting abilities whilst also introducing a powerful depiction of RD Laing. I would recommend this to anyone who takes an interest in psychotherapy, psychology, 1960’s counterculture movement and schizophrenia, just be aware that it downplays certain aspects of psychiatric disorder.

Review by Anthony Self

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