Mad to be Normal can be seen in limited release in cinemas across the UK. The movie, written and directed by Robert Mullen, is based on the life and work of RD Laing, the controversial Scottish psychologist from the 1960s. Laing was one of the original pop-culture mental-health profession and became famous for his book The Divided Self which sold millions of copies worldwide.
Laing challenged the conventional treatments of the day and abandoned the use of highly sedative drugs and electroshock therapy on schizophrenic patients. Instead, he embraced the madness of his patients and became part of their world to communicate with them at their level. In the 1960s, he put his theories into practice at his famed Kingsley Hall experiment in east London, where the mentally ill lived side by side with their doctors and therapists in the lock-free and medication-free community. Laing also indulged in the excesses of the time; he was a self-diagnosed alcoholic and a father to 10 children with four different women. A charismatic and complicated character known as the Acid Marxist, he provided his patients LSD and introduced the Grateful Dead at their concerts.
David Tennant plays the larger than life Laing based upon a script written by Robert Mullen, who also directed the movie. This project is a labour of love for Robert Mullan who has been tirelessly working to create this biopic for many years. Mullan, who is a documentary filmmaker by trade, met Laing in the last few years his of his life after the doctor had stopped drinking and treating patients. The two bonded and he was tasked with creating Laing’s biography. Mullan amassed many hours of taped interviews with the famed doctor, and those interviews became the basis for several of Mullan’s books including Mad to be Normal.
The movie is focused on a small portion of Laing’s personal and professional life. Set in Laing’s Kingsley Hall period, it uses a “day in the life” approach to help us enter his unconventional world. Some viewers will find the method a bit disjointed at first, but it soon starts to flow. Having said that, Mad to be Normal doesn’t have a defined start or clear end. It begins in the middle of Laing’s time at Kingsley Hall and ends without a satisfying conclusion, which will be difficult for some looking for a typical plot. But the lack of convention fits the maverick doctor and David Tennant’s charismatic screen presence.
As always, Tennant is a delight to watch, and he carries the movie. There is an excellent supporting cast, but this is Laing’s story and hence a showcase of Tennant’s acting chops. There was a conscious decision by the production team for Tennant not to mimic Laing but to reflect Laing’s presence on screen. Hence Tennant rattles off his lines in fast, quick witted challenge instead of the slow and deliberate speech patterns of the real man.
What stands out in Tennant’s performance is the complexity of the character — Laing’s charm, empathy for his patients, and genius, along with his complete disdain and disrespect for the normal. His relationship with his girlfriend, Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss), is at best dysfunctional, at worse abusive. He shows a complete lack of respect for her needs, her intelligence and even her safety, at the same time interrupting their life for his patients. He is dismissive of his fellow therapist at Kingsley Hall until Zemmell (Adam Paul Harvey) has a breakdown. It is only at that point that Laing cares and the result is a beautiful scene between two men who are friends and professionals. As for any conventional psychiatrist? The doctors just receive a belligerent rant from a man who is sure he is right and the rest of the world is wrong.
The crazy is normal for Laing. Real life is not.
For a low-budget film, this movie has some esteemed acting talent with the addition of Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne and Elisabeth Moss. Gambon is loveable as the childlike gentle madman who is still traumatised by the death of his parent. Gabriel Bryne’s seeming normal, intelligent and well-read Jim evolves and distorts into madness without appearing contrived. Elisabeth Moss has a desperate quality to her as she tries to be relevant to a man who virtually ignores her. At the end of his life, Laing had become disconnected from most of his friends and family, and this characteristic is reflected in his cavalier, almost contemptuous treatment of their relationship.
Given Mullan’s background and his personal connection with Laing, it is curious that the vast majority of the characters in the movie are fiction, and the movie isn’t peppered with real life names of people that worked and lived with the man. Rather the choice has been to create new characters and amalgamate real-life individuals as well as distort some of his established successes and failures. To a degree, it reduces the impact of the movie. For example, Laing’s actions with the young woman in the padded cell were more powerful and shocking than what was shown on screen. Also, the Kingsley Hall experiment wasn’t as disrespected as it appears in the movie. During its time it was world famous. Numerous well-known doctors and numerous celebrities, including Sean Connery and the Dalai Lama, graced its doors. But for most unfamiliar with Laing, it does challenge us to consider if we have returned to the old-fashioned medication approach and lost the gentleness Laing advocated.
The movie will be too provocative and alternative for some but having acknowledged its minor foibles, it is an intriguing glimpse into the life of a brilliant but flawed man.
4 stars out of 5
Mad to be Normal is screening now at selected cinemas. Visit Mad to be Normal website for screenings near you.