Film Columnist | Sam Mcloughlin
Much like the breaking of a vase only to glue it back together again – a spontaneous treatment diagnosed by Tenant’s R. D. Laing to calm his assistant’s nerves – this film provides some sense of reward in the performance of its leading man. However, its slow pacing and fractured narrative leaves us questioning if it should have been attempted in the first place.
Helmed by documentarian turned feature film director Robert Mullan, Mad to be Normal throws audiences back five decades and surrounds us in the whiskey-filtered world of counterculture psychiatrist Dr R. D. Laing (David Tennant) and his riskiest and most controversial experiment of all: Kingsley Hall. During the 1960’s, where lobotomising treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and sedation ran rampant, Laing pioneered for a more humane and dialogue intensive approach to treating the mentally ill.
Unfortunately, this biopic leaves audiences with too many unanswered questions which only a few hours on Google would satisfy. Laing’s treatment of his patients takes a backseat as Mullan focuses primarily on exploring the relationship between the Doctor and his fabricated girlfriend Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss). Laing’s professional life and idealistic ideas in the psychiatric field are substantially eclipsed by a frustrating amount of fiction. Instead, they are used merely as a testament to man’s character in the face of his frequently abhorrent handling of his personal life. So if you are looking for a fact-driven true story, you may want to turn around now and revisit this year’s The Post, because liberties are taken in abundance and the film essentially boils down to a relationship drama between an emotionally unavailable man and an ignorantly desperate woman.
Despite Mullan’s odd choices in the way of focus, his passion project is somewhat redeemed by a tremendous cast. Tenant’s brilliantly executed performance as the ‘acid-Marxist’ – the hipster saviour of the mentally handicapped who moulded his home at Kingsley Hall into a haven – is propped up by veterans Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne and hidden talent Jerome Holder. All of which excel in their roles as troubled patients.
Among the other positive pieces of this fragmented art house installation are the handful of well executed scenes regarding the heart and soul of the film: Laing’s relationship with his patients. A tender encounter in an American mental institution and a heartbreaking showdown with a mob of London residents not only bring to life the greatly positive strides of Laing’s outlandish work, but the man’s capacity to care for outcasts in a world that doesn’t.
Ultimately, Mad To Be Normal exceeds in providing audiences an insight into an interestingly eccentric character, but fails to do justice to the excellent work and influence Dr R. D. Laing truly had.