The controversial celebrity “anti-psychiatrist” RD Laing was something like a Scottish Timothy Leary, a Swinging Sixties counterculture icon who attracted a cult following among the young, shared a stage with The Grateful Dead and dropped LSD with Sean Connery. A best-selling author and “acid Marxist,” Laing argued that mental illness was a valid reaction to the brutalizing realities of society and family. A radical opponent of prison-like asylums and anti-psychotic drugs, the Glasgow-born guru challenged the medical establishment while enjoying a hedonistic rock-star lifestyle, partying with famous fans including The Beatles.
A labor of love for first-time writer-director Robert Mullan, author of several books on Laing, Mad to Be Normal boils a fascinating subject down into a slightly clunky, simplistic bio-drama. That said, a powerhouse central performance from David Tennant (Doctor Who, Harry Potter) should help boost the film’s audience appeal. Solid support from Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne also lend an air of class to an otherwise threadbare production. Following its domestic theatrical launch next week, Mad to Be Normal can expect modest art house play in overseas markets.
Relishing a rare chance to deploy his native Scottish accent, Tennant replicates Laing’s louche mannerisms, florid speaking style and magnetic charm with forensic precision. Mullan opts for a narrow chronological focus, covering Laing’s five years as figurehead of Kingsley Hall in East London, an experimental “anti-asylum” where patients with schizophrenia and other severe mental health problems lived alongside their carers in a revolutionary “self-cure” environment. Conventional medication was banned, but not recreational drugs.
Mad to Be Normal opens with the bizarre disclaimer that any resemblance to real people in the film is “entirely coincidental,” which is demonstrably false but possibly included as a legal safety net. Mullan certainly fabricates and distorts elements of Laing’s real biography. The American PhD student who becomes his lover at Kingsley Hall, Angie Wood (Moss), is a pure fiction. The real-life death of Laing’s daughter Susan (Alexandra Finnie) from leukemia is brought forward by a decade, a clumsy chronological contrivance of questionable taste. A prickly meeting between Laing and his starchy battle-axe mother also feels like a jarringly artificial bid to stoke up Freudian psychodrama.
Among the fictionalized regulars at Kingsley Hall are Jim (Byrne), a volatile Anglo-Irish depressive who jealously guards his connection to Laing, and Sidney (Gambon), an elderly lost soul who agrees to take LSD to help resolve the lingering trauma of his parents’ death in a grisly murder-suicide. Strangely, Mullan overlooks some of the community’s most famous real alumni, including Mary Barnes, a schizophrenic who became a celebrated painter. Mad to Be Normal also suggests Kingsley Hall was forced to close in 1970 in response to thuggishly hostile locals and self-serving establishment doctors. The real chain of events was inevitably more complex, and involved two patients jumping from the roof.
Laing’s explosive mix of genius and egomania, charisma and arrogance should serve as rocket fuel for a juicy biopic, but Mullan is plainly hobbled by his slender budget and limited directing chops. He mostly confines the action within Kingsley Hall, lending the whole project a stagey chamber feel. Narrative flow is disjointed, with scant room for nuance, so the psychological case studies feel glib and under-explained. The turbulent 1960s backdrop is cheaply invoked with long hair, garish clothes and psychedelic blues-rock, the Austin Powers clichés of the era.
Almost three decades after his death, the value of Laing’s contributions to psychiatry remain contentious, particularly as he embraced more esoteric New Age methods in later life, declined into alcoholism and lost his license to practice. Mullan’s take-home message is not wholly uncritical but obviously partisan, concluding with the simplistic claim that Laing’s ideas “live on.” Mad to Be Normal is a fine showcase for Tennant’s acting skills but a partial, selective portrait of a cult figure who deserves a much more thorough probing on the cinematic couch.
Production companies: Gizmo Films, Bad Penny Productions, GSP Studios
Cast: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Gambon, David Bamber, Olivia Poulet, Trevor White
Director: Robert Mullan
Screenwriters: Robert Mullan, Tracy Moreton
Producers: Charlotte Arden, Phin Glynn
Cinematographer: Ali Asad
Editor: Laurie Yule
Production designer: Celina Norris
Sales company: Gizmo Films