The reaction you have to Mad to Be Normal, the biopic of Scottish psychiatrist R.D Laing, who advocated new controversial ways of dealing with schizophrenia in the 1960s, will vary strongly depending on whether or not you have known anyone with the condition. If you haven’t, R.D Laing will be a pioneer of psychiatry who fought for mentally ill patients to be treated in a more humane light. If you have, the film will serve as a chilling reminder of the complete lack of understanding of schizophrenia in the 1960s; clueless doctors were constantly on the edge of discovery and were left to speculate and experiment on patients for answers, which allowed for mavericks like R.D Laing to surface.
The provocative film is written with an intimate understanding of the man by Robert Mullan, who interviewed the psychiatrist in the 1990s for his autobiography. R.D Laing was against the use of any form of medication or electric shock treatment and instead believed that talking to patients was the way forward. He made the bold move of turning his home into a mental hospital called Kingsley Hall and invited people suffering with the disease of the mind to live with him. These days, patients are kept in hospitals where there are plenty of nurses in proportion to the patients. However R.D Laing felt that if a patient was becoming troublesome and complained about voices in their head, a simple chat, a shoulder massage and possibly some LSD should do the trick. The set up was also handy so he could sleep with his number one fan Angie, played with a child-like innocence by Elizabeth Moss, who became his girlfriend.
The main narrative drive of the film is their relationship, which should never have been more than a tawdry one night stand. There seems to be no limit to Angie’s inferiority complex, he even asks the morning after sleeping with her ‘are you still here?’ and states that ‘love is a terrible burden to place on someone.’ Despite R.D Laing admitting he doesn’t have much to do with his children, she is hell-bent on having a baby with him and living with the child in his home come mental clinic, even though one of the patients believes her to be the ‘Whore of Babylon’ and regularly makes threats towards her. Really, if desperation was a mental condition, she’d be madder than the lot of them. This is problematic as the film gravitates around the relationship and it is hard to know who to root for.
The film succeeds in capturing the deeply harrowing nature of the most crippling mental illness. The electric shock scenes are unsettling to watch and all the actors played their mental health problems in a brilliantly convincing and understated way. Although the film can seem rudderless at times, the pacing increases after the baby is born and the safety of Angie and her newborn child are deemed by R.D Laing to be less important than his patients.
The main strength of the film is David Tennant’s charisma. He succeeds in capturing the mercurial aspects to R.D Laing’s personality and keeps us invested despite high levels of sleaze and behaviour so morally off the charts it makes for uncomfortable viewing. We are constantly faced with the question was R.D Laing an opportunistic rogue and self-publicist who used his patients as part of a publicity stunt, or did he possess a genuine compassion for the mentally ill? The answer is probably both but the film never reaches a judgement and allows you to come to your own conclusion. The most poignant scenes are when he leaps to the defence of his patients after a mob throws bricks through their windows, and when he defiantly disagrees with the medical elite about their treatment of a female patient trapped in a padded cell.
R.D Laing will always be a divisive man who is hard to pin down, he demonstrated cruelty towards his family yet championed the cause of the vulnerable in an unsympathetic time period when not many did. The film hints that his motivation may have been a form of self-help for his own problems but unfortunately never delves any deeper into his past.
Mad to be Normal is released on April 6th