R. D. Laing was a pioneering psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness. He challenged psychiatric diagnoses, arguing that diagnosis of mental heath problems contradicted accepted medical procedure, maintained that schizophrenia was ‘a theory not a fact’ and rejected the ‘medical model of mental illness’.
One of his most infamous works in the field of ‘anti-psychiatry’ was his work in the 1960s in Kingsley Hall, which he established for people suffering from what was perceived by the medical community as psychiatric disorders. Rather than follow the traditional psychiatric methods of electroconvulsive therapy and tranquilisers, Laing’s work allowed residents to work through their treatment naturally, giving them space to ‘embrace the madness’, aided by the use of LSD.
It’s this period his life and the work that he conducted that formed the basis of the film Mad To Be Normal, which is about to receive a VOD release after its debut Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017.
Mad To Be Normal is a fascinating piece of film making, delving into the madness (so to speak) of Laing’s pioneering and controversial work in treating mental illness. While the film by director Robert Mullan (who co-scripted with Tracey Moreton) is auto-biographical of the work Laing conducted between 1965 and 1970, the film takes the premise as a broad landscape for storytelling, rather than drawing on the people in his life at the time.
Elisabeth Moss’s Columbia graduate student Angie Wood is completely fictional, as are the people Laing treats. In that respect you would assume the film would chart a more straightforward narrative, charting Wood’s relationship with Laing and following the treatment of the residents. But Mullan doesn’t follow that approach. There is a rough journey for some characters but the dates are murky, the transition between scenes blurred and the ending virtually non-existent. If you come into Mad To Be Normal expecting a tale of Laing’s life – or even the history of the Kingsley Hall – you are sure to be solely disappointed.
But if you accept that this isn’t your straightforward narrative, then there is a lot to engage with. David Tennant delivers one of his best roles, bestowing Laing with a sense of arrogance and superiority; while he deeply cares for the residents, he acts like he knows more than anyone else in the room and is quite brutal in his take down of others. There is no restraint in his actions; his first encounter with Angie Wood sees him feeding her food over the table as she meets to discuss his work leading to a relationship of lust, passion and absolute adoration on her part.
Eager to become part of his world, Wood throws herself into her relationship with Laing even where he doesn’t seem to share the same adoration and respect. Elizabeth Moss delivers the role with gusto, delivering an endearing performance as a woman who constantly finds herself playing second fiddle to his work and family. At times her desperation almost seems pathetic, her desire to have a baby more out of an attempt to stay part of his world than out of a shared equal love. It’s odd that Mullan creates such a significant fictional character in a film that is supposed to be largely autobiographical but then perhaps the role of Wood was there to represent the many lovers in his life (Laing fathered six sons and four daughters by four different women).
Mullan doesn’t seem interested in telling a story in the traditional narrative sense. Mad To Be Normal is more concerned with the treatment of mental illness in the 1960s and this film explores some fascinating moments and characters. Michael Gambon is superb as always playing he 70 year old man trying to deal with a particularly horrific childhood trauma (glimpsed in the brutal LSD-induced flashback as his father slaughters his mother with an axe and then slits his throat in front of him). There are a multitude of fascinating characters in Kingsley Hall but it is Gabriel Byrne’s Jim that is the true stand out. His introduction, setting Wood up with a meeting with Laing, suggests he is a colleague of the esteemed psychiatrist. But what soon transpires is a deeply troubled man, driven by compulsions that lead to him threatening the life of Wood and her child. The fact that Laing is unable to help him, leading to Jim’s incarceration in a mental ward, is one of the biggest tragedies in the unfolding narrative.
There is certainly an attempt by Mullan to weave more insights into Laing’s character; despite the fact that his daughter didn’t die of leukaemia until she was 21, the director and writer brings up this moment in his life to coincide with the events for dramatic purposes. And we see real magic in Laing’s work; his trip to the New York mental ward and his ability to help the poor young woman in the padded cell is perhaps the highlight of the movie. When she meets him she swings from violent to non-responsive and being fed through a drip; Laing is able to disarm and make contact with her as they test each other’s boundaries. The call out for pepperoni pizza is a really fantastic piece of droll humour in an otherwise heavy movie.
And Tennant really is the man to bring that sense of levity to the often intense subject material. He exudes charisma and dry humour and fascinates even when Laing’s actions are unquestionable. It’s the classic anti-hero told in autobiographical form.
Mad To Be Normal is a thought-provoking and challenging film and not one you can switch off too. It can be slow and disjointed at times but when the story delves deep into the mind-set of Laing and the residents he treats, it can be a powerful, emotive, even enjoyable experience.
Mad To Be Normal will be available on VOD from 13th August.