It’s hard to know what to think of ‘Mad To Be Normal’, the story of R D Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist who was the darling of the counterculture of the 1960s. Laing was known for his controversial methods of treating mental health, without the use of electroconvulsive therapy, then the go-to treatment, even though “we don’t know why it works but it does”.
Laing’s controversy went further than just refusing to use ECT. He used LSD in his treatments, and came to be known as the psychiatrist to the stars, the “acid Marxist”. The film, which premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017, has an all star cast, including David Tennant as Laing, Elisabeth Moss (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Top Of The Lake’) as love interest Angie Wood, Gabriel Byrne as Jim, and Michael Gambon as Sydney Kotok. To say the film is a true life account could never be the case: Wood is an invention, and scenes from his life are taken out of time; for instance, the film covers the period of his mental health refuge, Kingsley Hall, 1965 to 1970, but includes the death from leukemia of his daughter Susan, presumably in order to add to the premise of the film, that he was devoted to his children. Susan however died in 1976, well after the closure of Kingsley Hall. In fact, speaking in an interview in 1974, Susan said,
“He can solve everybody else’s problems but not our own.”
The film, ‘Mad To Be Normal’, with a screenplay by Robert Mullan and Tracy Moreton, for all it’s creative licence, is gripping. The stellar performances by all the cast – quite apart from the incredible acting from Gabriel Byrne, who makes the audience believe he’s capable of murder, and the mental torment shown by Michael Gambon – means we must certainly give special mention to Jerome Holding, as John, a teenager diagnosed with “catatonic schizophrenia” (he cured himself when allowed under Laing’s care to complete his mission of counting to five million in order to rid himself of the voices in his head), and Olivia Poulet, as Maria, a young woman suffering from extreme post-natal depression.
Without the supporting actors the film would never have been quite so good. Possibly the weakest link would be Moss: apart from an early scene where she first meets Laing, and her interplay with Tennant conveys the heightened sexual tension between the pair (nobody should be surprised that the next scene sees them in bed together), she is more of an after-thought than a strong presence, mostly likely down to the fact that there are so many fearsomely powerful characters in the cast. To be lost in such a sea of greats is no actual issue.
In conclusion, we’re left wanting to learn more about Laing. As a biopic, rather than an autobiographical film, it’s therefore done what it sent out to do.
‘Mad To Be Normal’ will be released on VOD on 13th August, and avaiable to watch as a digital download on iTunes, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Vubiquity, BT, and Sky Store.