One of the reasons I enjoy following Gabriel Byrne’s career is because I never know what he is going to do next.
He moves fluidly and effortlessly from comedy to action to drama and all stops in between, sometimes in the same project! I have always thought that, if you are going to chronicle someone’s professional accomplishments, it seems wise to pick a gifted person who will keep you on your toes. Always challenging, never boring. Sometimes the challenging part can become a bit overwhelming, for me and for fans (“He’s going to make a film about what now?!”), but that’s okay. We learn to cope.
Mad To Be Normal is a perfect example of one of Gabriel’s challenges. And it happens to be a story about those of us who can’t cope.
At Kingsley Hall in London, beginning in 1965, R. D. Laing, one of the early multi-hyphenates (psychiatrist-author-activist-celebrity), opened the house to a group of his patients and began an experiment in the humane treatment of mental illness, primarily schizophrenia. No traditional prescription drugs. No shock therapy (ECT). No physical restraints. No incarceration. His patients lived together, ate together, and were ill together. He lived with them, too. He talked to them, was a physical presence for them, and helped them as he could. Some of them got better. Some of them did not. The Kingsley Hall experiment ended in 1970.
Mad To Be Normal is a snapshot of that experiment.
The film, written and directed by Robert Mullan, whose book of conversations with Laing is highly regarded (and just got a second edition!), will probably remind you of another challenging Gabriel film: Spider. And there are similarities in tone and color. But Mad To Be Normal is a chronicle of mental illness grounded in reality. We don’t see the world through the eyes of a mentally unstable person. Here we see both sides of the story. Ronald David Laing, as portrayed by David Tennant, was a trail-blazer, but he was also a human being; we identify with his frustrations and appreciate his humor and his commitment. As the patients’ stories come to life we, like Laing, empathize with them. We care about their well-being. We want them to overcome their challenges and obstacles. We are overjoyed when breakthroughs seem to occur, and we despair when illness turns to anger and violence. Mad To Be Normal is both pragmatic and elegiac–a rare balance–and David Tennant is a knock-out in the central role.
Gabriel’s character, Jim, is the “through-patient.” We observe him all the way through the story, while his co-patients Sydney, John, and Maria are more elliptical, and there are others in the community who never really speak. We see the breakthroughs, temporary and sustained, for these three patients, all of them touching, with Michael Gambon’s Sydney the most affecting . And we watch as Gabriel’s Jim morphs from charismatic poet, amiable and only occasionally unsettling, into a Bible-quoting (or misquoting, as Tennant’s Laing observes) terror with a flame-thrower. The damage he inflicts is limited; the psychological damage he has endured is all-encompassing. It is a great performance, one for the record books, and a wonderful counterpoint to Tennant’s mesmerizing, sympathetic, and unpredictable psychiatrist.
I am so glad Gabriel took up this challenge.
The Mad To Be Normal Mega Movie Page offers video clips, trailers, screencaps, posters, promotional stills, reviews, quotes and more for the film, so be sure to visit to find out more about this fascinating movie. I promise it will be fun and only a little challenging! heart
PS. The title of this posting is a nod to the 1966 Donovan song used in the film’s score: “Season of the Witch.” I was shocked that I remembered it so clearly!
When I look out my window,
What do you think I see?
And when I look in my window,
So many different people to be,
It’s strange, sure it’s strange.
You’ve got to pick up every stitch,
You’ve got to pick up every stitch,
Two rabbits running in the ditch,
Oh no, must be the season of the witch,
Must be the season of the witch, yeah,
Must be the season of the witch.