Nigel Watson reviews Mad To Be Normal, starring David Tennant. Screening until Thursday 15 June, tickets are available on our website.
Robert Mullan’s film focuses on R. D. Laing’s controversial time at Kingsley Hall, a psychiatric community project in the East End of London, which ran from 1965 to 1970. This was at a time when the counter-culture was in its prime, and old values and viewpoints were being challenged and over-turned.
As a psychiatrist R.D. Laing denounced the conventional wisdom of drugging and locking up psychiatric patients, instead he preferred to treat them as people and deal with them on their own terms. This is highlighted in the scenes where Laing visits the USA, and talks to a woman imprisoned in a padded cell. He spends time with her, tries to understand her through talk and body language, and eventually coaxes her out to eat a pizza. Rather than being impressed the US psychiatrists regard this as highly unorthodox and unprofessional.
David Tennant is mesmerising as Laing, lecturing, smoking, drinking and putting his ideas in action by living at the heart of this unusual community. His life changes when he meets American Phd student Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss) and she soon moves in with him.
Angie is challenged by the fact that he spends so much time and energy dealing with the patients and with his estranged wife and children who live in Scotland. In an uneasy scene, Laing confronts his Mother about a hairy Voodoo doll, that his children tell him, she has made in his image that she stabs with a knife. So as a child, Laing was no stranger to living in a home environment where psychological problems were the norm.
As the film progresses we see Laing increasing battling with his own demons, with the situation coming to a head when Angie becomes pregnant. The local community attacks the commune externally whilst inside the patients are becoming more threatening and aggressive.
There is a clever scene where Laing deliberately smashes a vase, to engineer a situation where his depressed colleague/patient is drawn into helping him glue it together. This neatly summarises Laing as someone who wants to put people back together as a whole living entity rather than smash them into psychological pieces with antipsychotic drugs and the horror of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
As a sign of the times Laing, wasn’t adverse to using and sharing LSD or other recreational drugs with his patients. For a time his understanding and supportive environment provided a haven for people suffering from extreme psychosis. As this film shows, patients ranged from severely traumatised people like Sydney Kotok (Michael Gambon) who is disturbed by childhood memories of murder and suicide in the family, the unstable and potentially murderous Jim (Gabriel Byrne) and the young man tortured by the need to count to a million and back to kill the voices in his head.
David Tennant perfectly captures the charisma and frustrations of Laing, showing him as a multidimensional character who is a flawed crusader for the rights of psychiatric patients. And, we should warn viewers that he wears a fantastic range of psychedelic shirts worthy of his ‘rock star’ status at that time.
Overall, the film displays a time when barriers were broken and people like Laing were searching for new ways to deal with and embrace existence. Like Laing’s books and the Kingsley Hall experiment, Mad To Be Normal makes us wonder about ‘madness’ and how we deal with it and understand it in a crazy world.
Nigel Watson is a writer living and working in Plymouth
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