Having initially sat in an entirely empty cinema wondering what the hell was going on, we eventually stagger into a showing of the final film of GFF 2017. Closing the festival is the world premiere of Mad To Be Normal, a partial biopic of renowned – or notorious – Scottish psychiatrist, RD Laing. Played by
Played by David Tennant, Laing was either a mercurial genius or mad as a box of particularly wired frogs. Or both, of course. Hardly mutually exclusive in the arts so why not medicine too? What side one comes down on is entirely up to the viewer. A case for both is made in what is, despite a few reservations, a fitting end to an excellent 12 days.
“I’m not a shaman”
So says the main man in this portrait by Robert Mullan. In the febrile atmosphere of the late sixties, when the film is based, there were many who would dispute those words. No shortage of acolytes, both here and Stateside, for the psychiatric thinker for the post-Beat Generation. Indeed, another character with no shortage of followers, Timothy Leary, pops up in message form. Volunteering to hand out thousands of hits of acid, he reckons Laing has that covered in the UK. Though the good doctor declines to participate, he was not shy of acid as therapy – and that’s just part of his notoriety. That gives a flavour of the truly counter-cultural approach of the man and the film.
Indeed, right across Mad To Be Normal, the message is, crudely, conventional psychiatry be damned. It’s communal living in East London, booze, fags, and drugs agogo. If madness didn’t kill you in his company, lung cancer and cirrhosis would make a valiant attempt. Certainly, an interesting experiment and Tennant plays the lead very well, lurching from inspiration to perspiration in a somewhat seething, devilish, though thoughtful, performance. Not unlike your now grizzled reporter as we approach the end of a frantic festival.
He’s upstaged by Elisabeth Moss as girlfriend Angie Wood, however. Better known as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, she brings real conflict to her role. Lover…but judge. Buying into the idea and living in the commune, but also mother of child, brought into the chaotic world.
What perhaps stops Mad To Be Normal reaching greatness is the simple fact that it doesn’t really gain anything from being on the big screen. It’s nicely filmed, nicely directed and paced by Mullan, however, it would be equally at home on the small screen. It’s a small criticism; at the end of the day, it’s a good piece of work and a fascinating insight into the man, the culture and the conflicting ideas of the time. However, the bells, whistles and whatnot facilitated by whacking it up in the cinema are not hugely exploited.
There’s no doubt Laing left a legacy. A legacy still debated both within and without psychiatric circles. Whether that legacy was bought at an expense to others is where this film is at. We listen to characters such as Jim, played somewhat terrifyingly by Gabriel Byrne, but where does one draw the line or any boundary at all? DIY carpentry with a bag of nails and a fellow patient does seem an interesting approach to Gestalt. Through substance use and abuse, quite apart from the psycho-social exploration, the cost to Laing’s family, patients, colleagues or, indeed, himself is prodded mercilessly.
“Being R D Laing’s son was neither amazing nor enlightening, for most of the time it was a crock of shit“.
So said his son, Adrian Laing in 2009. That’s certainly one (informed) perspective. Flew very close to the sun did our eminent Glaswegian. Mad To Be Normal lets you make your mind up about the breakthroughs…and fallout. An erudite and thoughtful man in decidedly groovy times. Killer combination.
Nationwide release, Thursday 6th April, 2017.
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