Mad to Be Normal, 2017.
Written and Directed by Robert Mullan.
Starring David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne, and David Bamber.
Mad To Be Normal tells the story of world-renowned Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing and his unique community at Kingsley Hall, East London, during the 1960’s.
Robert Mullan’s Mad to Be Normal, which tells the brief story of psychiatrist R.D Laing’s (David Tennant) unorthodox methods at Kingsley Hall in the 1960s, captures a vivid snapshot of a troubled history. However, it is not only a social history that the film shares a relationship with, but a cinematic one. Cinema has offered a cynical snapshot of mental health treatment, from Louise Fletcher’s iconic Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Both connect to Mullan’s film. The fate of Jack Nicholson’s character is symbolic of Laing’s belief in the counter-productive value of orthodox treatments, while Scorsese’s film echoes the clash between old and new schools of thought within psychiatry.
“Love is a terrible burden to inflict on someone” Laing says to partner Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss). His words ring with a truthful cynicism, although perhaps he’s not only speaking of love, but of sympathy and empathy. The outcome of the Kingsley Hall experiment sees a theme emerge of disappointment, of us failing one another, whether in our personal or professional relationships. Laing’s reference to reproduction as a sexually transmitted disease, one with a hundred percent death rate could also be seen to impress upon the film a fatalism. This reading is in all likelihood an over-simplification, but the film is ensnared in a pervading sadness, or rather the victimisation of reason by the ignorance of orthodoxy, and the slow process of change. Although, while such thinkers and intellectuals as Laing are pushed to the fringes of society, even by the intellectual community, the remarkable aspect of cinema is the way in which these characters attain a charisma on the screen and a broader acceptability. It may be their courage of conviction, beneath which their human vulnerability is slowly revealed, but Tennant’s charismatic performance draws attention to the way cinema can bring an acceptability to ideas and individuals that is otherwise alien. In these times we are living through in which art is a victim to austerity, Mullan’s film reminds us of its importance and enduring value.
The soundtrack featuring iconic sixties music is an integral character within the film, emphasising this troubled past. It reveals the dark underbelly of the modern world beneath the vibrant pulse of artistic and creative change in the same decade as Laing’s tussle with the establishment. Here Mullan does little to alleviate the stark realisation of the absence of the progressive in our modern history, often left to daring men such as Laing to propel us forward. Their efforts however are often met with resistance, hence leading to disappointment.
Mad to Be Normal is an assured piece of filmmaking, capable of evoking an emotional reaction ranging from laughter to anger. While its purpose can be seen as bringing the story of Kingsley Hall and the man behind it to the screen, there is another purpose. The film reminds us of the importance of communication, not only with others but of the need for an interrogation of our own ideas and personality. Whether we are orthodox cripples or visionaries, we are all susceptible to flaws. Here is a film that is an advocate for an attention to the communication not as a therapy, but as a more broader necessity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★