Film - Mad to Be Normal

Susan Omand worries about a Doctor being a psychiatrist as she watched Mad to be Normal...

So he should be locked up because YOU’RE frightened?

R D Laing was a fascinating man. A Scottish psychiatrist who, in the 1960s, had “radical ideas” for helping psychotic patients, which included the therapeutic use of LSD and the creation of Kingsley Hall, a medication-free sanctuary in east London to allow people to communicate and confront their demons so they could start to heal themselves. The alternative, accepted treatment at the time, was strong sedatives and electro-shock therapy, sensory deprivation and brain surgery, institutionalising patients in prison-like surroundings in an attempt to dull mental health issues rather than deal with them. So, to have a forthright Scotsman in a paisley pattern shirt and velvet jacket breeze into this old-boy network and tell them they were doing it all wrong, caused no end of ructions at the time.

But, even though the sociology and psycho-analysis was utterly enthralling to watch, this is a bio-pic more than either a dramatic story or a documentary study of mental health at the time and the film does focus more on the personal side of Laing’s life, dissecting his relationships with both his partner, a New York grad-student called Angie (emotionally played by Elisabeth Moss,) and the other doctors and patients at the Kingsley Hall community. It also portrays well how he was perceived by both society and the media at the time, from his almost Svengali like influence over some to his issues with traditional science practises and the public’s attitude, both to his work and to mental health in general. I need to commend the director Robert Mullan at this point. You can tell that he has a documentary background because of his interpretation of set pieces, like the almost claustrophobic close framing of some of the more fraught scenes, which worked incredibly well to add a discomfiting edge to the interactions, and for his decision to use original 1960s footage on occasion to set a scene and give the film a grounding in reality.

I must admit, though, to coming into this film with a bit of trepidation, not because of the subject matter, which was absolutely as disturbing as it should be, but because of the casting for Laing. For me, David Tennant has always managed to twist the characters he plays round to being different versions of himself and, with every new one, I can almost feel traces of previous characters leeching through: Casanova, The Doctor, even Hamlet. I don’t mean that he can only play himself, he’s a far better actor than that, I just mean more that you tend to watch the shows, plays, films, whatever, that he’s in because he’s in them and they become David Tennant vehicles.

Mad to be Normal is NOT a David Tennant vehicle. It was mesmerising to watch because he WAS the psychiatrist R D Laing, with such a level of believability that you are left second guessing whether you should actually be rooting for this guy or not as he progressed effortlessly from compassionate saviour to charismatic manipulator to untouchable trailblazer to broken soul, either leading or dragging everyone else with him. The film tells the story of Laing’s own demons, his destructive coping mechanisms, the stresses of his own fractured families, both in Glasgow and in London, the pressure to succeed for the sake of himself as well as his patients, and the sacrifices that he demanded from himself, and all those around him, and Tennant just takes it all in his stride and makes it all work. His on-screen presence, especially playing against Gabriel Byrne’s obsessively creepy patient Jim, is just breath-taking.

It has been said that Mad to be Normal is Tennant’s best work and, d’you know what? I’d agree with them.

Image - Goldfinch Studios

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