David Tennant and Elisabeth Moss star in this true to life tale of famous Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Tennant) whose pioneering work in the field of psychotherapy helped to challenge the stereotypes and hideous methods being used to treat people suffering with mental illness. In the 1960s, when Mad to be Normal is set, the old bedlam style mental institutions were still pumping patients full of anti-psychotic tranquilizers, and electrocuting them without any idea as to what this was doing to them.
Laing’s theory was that the drugs, isolation, and inhumane shock treatments were doing nothing apart from exacerbating the distress and already fractured emotional states of the patients. Laing instead believed in the power of self-healing, and talking, and listening. Between 1965 and 1970 – the period that is very swiftly covered in the film – Laing founded Kingsley Hall, a safe haven for schizophrenics and catatonics.
There would be no drugs, no electro-convulsive therapy, and no locks on the doors. It was more like a hippy commune than a hospital. The doctors and patients all lived together. And the coverage of this pioneering experiment turned Laing into a superstar. He became an icon of the counterculture in the 60s, and was referred to as the “high priest of anti-psychiatry”.
This should be the basis for one of those fabulous stranger-than-fiction biopics. Unfortunately the results are very uneven. Co-written and directed by Robert Mullan, who is something of an expert on Laing – he has written numerous books on the man – this is obviously a labour of love for the filmmaker, but the film is very obviously hampered by budget limitations. Even with a cast including Tennant, Moss, Michael Gambon, and Gabriel Byrne, this was clearly filmed on a shoestring, and it shows.
The film attempts to hide its limitations through heavily filtering the image, to give it a hazy, druggy 60s vibe, but it just ends up looking like a TV show. The performance from Tennant is the real selling point for the film. He is terrific as the rakish Laing, all Glaswegian bluster and charisma. The other big name cast members such as Moss and Byrne are not served at all well by a very disjointed script.
The best moments are when Mullan allows Laing to let loose on his theories of psychiatry to the establishment. His flamboyant, antagonistic pontificating, and fascinating theories grind uncomfortably against the decades of dogma surrounding mental health. This is where the film comes alive. The centrepiece of the film is his rock star treatment when he travels to America.
It’s all flashbulbs, autographs, book signings, and media appearances when he lands in New York. Laing’s writings have made him a notorious cult figure. He is then taken on a tour of a mental hospital with a film crew following him, culminating with a brilliant encounter with a catatonic patient. The film needed more of this.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film just hobbles along from one random sequence to the next without any real sense of structure or narrative cohesion. For a writer and director who is so clearly an expert on his subject, Mad to be Normal feels like a hugely compromised final product. The period the film covers is so condensed, there’s no room for the story to breathe or have any emotional impact. It ends up feeling very episodic, but with the episodes all being jumbled up.
This all perhaps goes some way to explaining the extremely long journey the film has been on since premiering at the GFF in February 2017, to it only just getting a digital download release now, some eighteen months later. It’s a real shame.
Cast: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne Director: Robert Mullan Writer: Robert Mullan & Tracy Moreton Released By: Goldfinch Studios Certificate: 15 Duration: 105 mins Release Date: 13th Aug 2018