Directed by Robert Mullan
Written by Robert Mullan and Tracy Moreton
Gizmo Films, 2017
Cast: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Gambon, David Bamber, Olivia Poulet
Filmed on location at Kingsley Hall in London, England and at the University of York in Yorkshire, England
Premiered at Glasgow Film Festival February 26, 2017.
The story of R. D. Laing and Kingsley Hall
Mad To Be Normal: So why even try?
During the 1960s, a renegade Scottish psychiatrist courts controversy within his profession for his approach to the field, and for the unique community he creates for his patients to inhabit. —IMDB
Mad To Be Normal reveals the story of R.D. Laing, the famous psychiatrist and one of Scotland’s greatest ever minds. Working out of Kingsley Hall in East London throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Laing performed various daring experiments on people who were diagnosed as mentally disturbed. His revolutionary methods involved experimenting with LSD on his patients and practicing a form of self-healing known as metanoia, causing outrage and controversy in the medical profession and radically changing attitudes and perceptions of mental health around the world. —Rotten Tomatoes
Gabriel on his character, Jim
Jim: And Aristotle, you know… He maintains that the brain is mostly composed of water. And, if the moon can affect the tides, what can it do to the human brain?
Jim: My mother was Irish.
Jim: Do you know what I think, Frank? We will have a bedtime poem. Let’s take up from where we left last night.
“But if my heart must break
Dear love, for your sake,
It will break in music, I know
Poet’s hearts break so.
But strange I was not told
That the brain can hold,
In a tiny ivory cell
God’s Heaven and Hell.”
[From the poem “Roses and Rue,” by Oscar Wilde]
Jim: Can I say something, Angie? Please don’t be offended. Um, I really like you. Yeah. You’ve got a beautiful quality about you. And you’re very compassionate. Lovely compassionate quality. Like Ronnie has. He has that same quality. I can see why you two gravitated towards each other.
Jim: You’ve got a lovely smile. Yeah! It comes from somewhere deep, you can tell.
Angie: Now you’re fibbing.
Jim: Nah, it’s the truth. It’s the truth.
Angie: I like you, too, Jim.
Jim: Well, thank you!
Jim: And the demon waited at the mouth of the cave,
for the baby to be born,
so that he could eat it.
Angie: You need some fucking help.
Jim: Hmmm. It’ll eat your baby and all.
Angie: I don’t have a baby.
Paul: Yeah anything goes, but–we have a duty to protect!
Ronnie: Yeah, but who protects Jim? He came here for sanctuary.
Paul: He might kill someone. Do you really want to take that risk?
Ronnie: (to Angie) Why didn’t you tell me about Jim?
Angie: Well, I didn’t care when he threatened to hurt me, but he’s talking about stealing Gabe. I had to tell someone.
Ronnie: I failed him.
Robert Mullan’s drama stars David Tennant as the real-life hippy Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, who sets up a house for schizophrenics in the Sixties, where there’s a fine line between doctors and patients, and LSD is on the menu for both.
It’s elevated above bog-standard biopic fare by the performances. Elisabeth Moss, aka Peggy in Mad Men, is a voice of sanity as the American student who falls under Laing’s spell, while Michael Gambon is affecting and Gabriel Byrne chilling as two of his troubled charges.
The charismatic core is Tennant, all unsentimental humanity, flamboyant flaws and paisley shirts as the man whose radical methods had him dubbed “the acid Marx” and “the white Martin Luther King”.
Although liberties have been taken with the true story, director Robert Mullan draws on his experience making documentaries to bring immediacy and pays special attention to period detail with almost every sepia frame filtered through a blanket of cigarette smoke. Among the residents Gabriel Byrne’s Bible-quoting patient adds a touch of menace, offset by Michael Gambon’s more comical turn. Tennant is as watchable as ever, resplendent in migraine-inducing psychedelic shirts, walking a fine line between radical visionary and arrogant chancer.
RD Laing was a hugely controversial character in the 1960s and ’70s. The Scottish psychiatrist argued against traditional psychiatry (especially the use of electric-shock treatment) and suggested that the family itself could bring on a child’s psychosis (‘I, Daniel Blake’ director Ken Loach turned Laing’s ideas into a drama called ‘Family Life’ in 1971, at the height of Laing’s influence). Now, though, some of Laing’s less wild theories have found expression in common ways we think about mental health and psychiatry.
This atmospheric period biopic stars David Tennant and immerses us into one of Laing’s most famous experiments: Kingsley Hall, a residential unit that Laing ran in the East End from 1965 to 1970. Writer-director Robert Mullan gives us a tea-stained, smoky and often candle-lit period look as Laing gathers around him a small, fragile bunch of patients, who are played by actors including Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon, and puts his ideas into practice (they include prescribing LSD to patients). Meanwhile, he strikes up a fractious relationship with a Canadian admirer, Angie Smith (Elizabeth Moss), and we see how Laing’s stated compassion didn’t always stretch to his personal life.
If you were a student when the Dialectics of Liberation congress, rather than the iTunes festival, packed the Roundhouse, then a copy of Laing’s The Divided Self is probably sitting beside Castaneda and Marcuse on your shelves. People with schizophrenia and psychosis, he felt, were reacting logically to an insane world, particularly the nuclear family set-up, and should be allowed the space to explore their visions and mental chaos. And so they do, at Kingsley Hall, with Stanley (a wonderfully melancholy Michael Gambon, pictured above, beside Tennant) reluctantly taking acid – “What have you got to lose?” asks Laing chirpily – and re-living his terrifying childhood traumas. Better than ECT? “I don’t know how to tell him it doesn’t work,” Stanley says sadly to Jim (a brooding Gabriel Byrne), whose delusions come and go more violently, though he’s a poetic soul, given to reciting Wilde: “But strange that I was not told/That the brain can hold/In a tiny ivory cell/God’s heaven and hell.” Jim is eaten up with jealousy about Angie’s relationship with Laing, and when the baby is born his madness gets dangerous. Those heavy-duty tranquillisers come in handy after all.
[A note from Stella: Michael Gambon’s character is actually named Sydney.]
behind the scenes
Official website of R. D. Laing includes a timeline of his professional contributions and his personal life, news and events, and recommended links
Re-released with a new introduction to coincide with a film of the same title (directed by the author), Mad To Be Normal is the memoir R.D. Laing never lived to write. In the last two years of Laing’s life, he recorded hundreds of hours of conversation with Robert Mullan in which he was determined to be as frank and open as possible, and equally determined to ‘put the record straight.’ R.D. Laing wrote a number of books during the 1960s which rocked the foundations of conventional psychiatry and galvanized the imagination of millions of ordinary readers. His views were against the grain of conventional psychiatry-his existential approach to madness was controversial, and his work brought into focus matters of individual liberty and the importance of the social context of ‘illness.’ The greatest accusation he suffered was that he idealized mental misery-something he consistently denied. Mad to be Normal presents Laing’s own words about his work and about his life. It is the most complete record on Laing, by Laing. Entertaining, maddening, surprising, impressive, occasionally scurrilous, and evoking a compelling portrait of the heady and sometimes self-regarding mood of the 1960s and early l970s, this book necessitates a reassessment of Laing and his work, work which is part of a lengthier and on-going process concerned with the routine care of those disturbed in mind.
R. D. Laing’s memoir, Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist 1927-1957, was published by Macmillan in 1985