As premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, Mad to be Normal is a suitably unconventional biopic of an unconventional subject, the Scottish psychiatrist Ronald David Laing whose theories on and treatments of mental illness remain controversial. Directed by documentary filmmaker Robert Mullan from a script co-written with Tracey Moretun, it cannot be denied that Mullan is an authority on Laing, having known him during his life and written about him extensively, but that familiarity carries the risk of lack of objectivity of which Laing could also be accused.
Played by former Doctor Who David Tennant, the film opens deep in the sixties in many ways, in fashion, music and shifting morality, the clash between the establishment and the new generation rising to prominence who would rebel against the inherited stiff upper lip of their war-born parents, focusing primarily on the period from 1965 to 1970 where Laing, his patients and staff were resident at Kingsley Hall in the East End of London.
Opening with a public lecture where students jostle to hear his words, Laing is already somewhat of a celebrity, and a cynical one who isn’t above using his position to take pot-shots or even scores; he’s also convinced that his own experiences are reflective of everyone else’s. “I wasn’t mothered, I was smothered,” he says of his own childhood, a statement which informs his clinical treatment of those in his care at Kingsley Hall.
Insisting that there be no tranquilisers, no sedatives, nothing to deaden the mind, he rightly perceives that there is resistance from the establishment to his unorthodox approach but while he feels this is prejudice he is far from unbiased about his own procedures which are largely experimental and, as presented in this admittedly abbreviated dramatic fashion, conducted with scant regards to the ethical considerations or controls of a clinical trial.
Regardless, what is undeniable is that Laing cares and that he cares more deeply and honestly for the individuals than the state facilities in which they were traditionally held, but that does not necessarily make his treatments appropriate or correct. He is aware that there are those who don’t approve of his methods, within the medical profession and in the immediate community, with open hostility displayed by residents who lived near the facility.
Tennant gives an unsympathetic performance of a man whose dedication to his beliefs makes him confrontational and bullying even to those closest to him including his girlfriend Angie (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, soon to be seen in The Handmaid’s Tale), not above manipulating his co-workers, the complications of a fractious relationship with his estranged wife and the failing health of his daughter further straining his patience.
Laing does not work with people to bring them around to his way of thinking, he does not offer comfort or support; he challenges them and makes them feel guilty, seeing it as a shortcut to gaining their consent. “He frightens me,” a doting mother says of her son, seeking reassurance; “So he should be locked up because you’re frightened?” is Laing’s response before demanding she commit her son to him rather than an institution.
Where in a hospital the patients sit in corridors, in stairwells, shaking and mumbling, at least Kingsley Hall gives the appearance of a home, of comfort, restoring that measure of dignity to the residents, among them John (Holby City‘s Jerome Holder), a catatonic schizophrenic, Sydney (Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon), older and conversational but haunted by his horrific childhood incident, and Jim (Vikings‘ Gabriel Byrne), prone to mood swings and violent, even dangerous outbursts.
Seemingly born to play eccentric doctors, Tennant is in his element as in his wild paisley shirt he drips LSD on Sydney’s tongue, what he deems as success encouraging him to dissolved the barriers between patients and carers as he takes them all on a trip, while in America his progress with a withdrawn patient makes him as unwelcome as in his homeland.
It’s a fragmentary narrative, a bit like Laing’s approach to treatment, half a decade squeezed into just over a hundred minutes, and while the extant threads are resolved it can only act as an introduction to Laing’s work and a wider questioning of the treatment of mental health which half a century later remains underfunded, unsupported and stigmatised; whether Laing was right or not is debatable but what is undeniable is that at every turn he wanted offer an alternative to the peace of medicated oblivion.