In a time where electroconvulsive therapy for mental illness was acceptable and old men were still stuck in their ways, Mad To Be Normal tells the story of controversial world-renowned Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (David Tennant) and his unique community at Kingsley Hall, East London, during the 1960’s. But, with growing liberalism and equality, “The Sixties” fought against close mindedness, which was exactly what Laing set out to do also.
From the opening scene, it’s very clear what time period we are in: patient Maria (Olivia Poulet) dances, hands in the air, in a gloomy room. It’s close on her, blurry and psychedelic. Director Robert Mullan sets this tone early on, that Mad To Be Normal is on the verge of experimental, so I thought I was in for an interesting watch.
Told in a series of moments, Mullan shows us life in Kingsley Hall, where Laing and his patients simply “live together as people.” The action is often limited to Kingsley Hall, which is decorated with period appropriate props and music. With these series of moments, there are some wonderful ones, but the narrative felt a little lost at times, and the patients psychological studies are under-developed and under-explained. I felt Mad To Be Normal couldn’t decide on what it was; an experimental film about Laing’s controversial treatments, or a straight forward biopic about Laing’s life? Falling somewhere in the middle of these two meant it lost all intimacy and was a little disjointed.
I’m a big fan of David Tennant, especially his TV work (Doctor Who, Jessica Jones etc), and here he turns in an engaging and charismatic performance as Dr. Laing. We can appreciate Dr. Laing for what he was – a broken man who wanted to fix others around him. But this film doesn’t set out to paint Laing as a saint. His genuine life pressures and responsibilities outside Kingsley Hall, including a very ill daughter, are forgotten about. Instead, he focuses solely on his experiments and the film hints that maybe Laing was out to fix himself, not just his patients.
But it’s the older supporting cast who are truly the memorable ones here, namely Gabriel Byrne (Usual Suspects) and Michael Gambon (Harry Potter). Playing patient Sydney, Gambon is a breath of fresh air and often stole every scene he featured in. Unfortunately, though, there weren’t many scenes and I felt he was often side-lined. Byrne is brilliant as patient Jim, and manages to be sweet yet unpredictable all at once. Jim is a character overlooked on purpose by Laing, but his growing estrangement doesn’t go unnoticed by Angie and us. Elizabeth Moss, as Laing’s partner Angie, gives a strong performance also, but I felt her development to be a bit stunted, instead, only used as an emotional tool the audience could touch base with.
Although slow and breezy, not dissimilar to the hippie-ish time period, it’s also not for the faint-hearted. It does not shy away from the use of electric shock treatment (ECT), self harm scenes and bouts of violence, and that’s something to be celebrated. Mullan doesn’t sugar coat mental illness or people’s perceptions of it during “The Sixties.”
Although Mad To Be Normal had it’s problems, it did convey a convincing message, that it’s a story about love, respect and acceptance for one another. These messages translate to our modern society today, in a time where we seem to be divided by the acts of politicians and their views. Mad To Be Normal is one I’m not sure I would revisit, but a fascinating watch all the same.