Mad to be Normal is based on the true story of controversial 1960s psychiatrist Dr R.D. Laing, a man who wanted to change the attitude of how people were treated when diagnosed as being a little ‘mad’ or cerebrally unstable, i.e. those with mental health issues.
Focusing on the five years when Dr Laing ran Kingsley Hall in East London, David Tennant plays the notorious Doctor who dared to think outside of the box. Whilst other practices were administering tranquilisers and electric shock treatment , Laing wanted to allow his patients the chance to live out their ‘madness’ with the hope they’d either heal themselves or, more simply, just exist without the need for endless tests, trials and temporary cures for their illnesses.
Laing was considered quite revolutionary in some circles and his unorthodox methods meant those in medical circles had fluctuating opinions and it brought him a level of fame, in a sense. What Mad to be Normal shows us is how in-depth Laing would go to help treat those in his care but it’s also very clear that his style didn’t work for everyone who came into his ‘home’.
Director and writer Robert Mullan, who co-wrote the screenplay with previous collaborator Tracy Moreton, offers us a curious insight into his days within the home-made hospital, showing us all the positive and negative elements of his work and although the film feels a little disjointed in occasional moments, it’s David Tennant’s performance that continues to captivate from start to finish. His Laing is smart, honest, tortured but also often right when it comes to how we treat people with mental health problems.
The film doesn’t hide away from his use of LSD to try and help patients out of a catatonic-type state, nor the self-healing ‘metanoia’ which endeavours to help patients find their way back to some sense of normality. As previously mentioned, these things didn’t work for everyone but it’s nevertheless a compelling watch and still a relevant comment on society, and especially how we treat those who aren’t considered as ‘normal’. Granted, things have changed a lot since then, especially our medical understanding, but with Tennant at the fore of the beliefs, he fully embodies Laing. Alongside him is excellent Elisabeth Moss, as his dedicated and honest partner Angie Wood, those two help facilitate our interest to stay with the story throughout.
Director Mullan has quite an impressive history with documentary making and so Mad to be Normal often has that docudrama ambiance but with a little more sincere, brutal truth than your average one. If anything, the film feels like homage to Laing and this is reiterated by its unusual flow with random editing cuts. In a number of sequences with serious moments, it can suddenly cut in and out into something with a completely different vibe. It’s arguable this imitates the content of the film but it can also be distracting.
Despite all this, the intrigue does absorb you and Tennant’s deeply authentic and nuanced performance really pulls you into Mad to be Normal impressively. This independent project tells an odd true story but one that’s very much of its time and lingers in the mind with candid truths and hopeful conclusions.