UK Release Date: 13th August 2018
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Robert Mullan
Writer: Robert Mullan, Tracy Moreton
Starring: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Gambon, Olivia Poulet
Synopsis: Unconventional psychiatrist RD Laing cares for mentally ill patients at his informal facility in London, pioneering new methods of treatment.
Establishing shots in the RD Laing biopic Mad To Be Normal are occasionally given added titles to contextualise the scenes in time. The film opens with a declaration that it is set in “the sixties” and a later caption declares that the events are happening “some months later”. It’s one of writer-director Robert Mullan‘s bizarre stylish choices to make the movie feel like a freewheeling slice of the Swinging Sixties, with a super liberal psychiatrist shunning orthodox medical thinking for a peace and love approach to treating mental health issues. Unfortunately, it comes across as an insufferable mess of a movie.
David Tennant does a decent job in the lead role, with the character of Dr Laing offering him a rare chance to use his natural Scottish brogue. His Laing is devoted to his patients, with whom he lives at his Kingsley Hall facility in East London, but often seeks comfort in the bottom of a bottle. He finds romance when he meets inquisitive young student Angie (Elisabeth Moss), though her presence in the house begins to cause problems with patient Jim (Gabriel Byrne), who takes a dislike to her as the weeks and months pass.
Mad To Be Normal obviously thinks Laing, known as ‘The Acid Marxist’ thanks to his willingness to administer LSD to patients while rejecting traditional medication, is a pretty cool fella. Indeed, Mullan has written a number of books about Laing and his unconventional methods and so is clearly an expert on the man. With this in mind, it’s a surprise when the movie opens with the declaration that “any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental”, as if asserting Mullan’s ability to take any number of liberties in how Laing is depicted. There’s very little in the film that suggests Laing’s work was significant and he veers wildly between benevolent genius and destructive alcoholic whenever the narrative demands a shift.
The movie is at its strongest when it provides insight in to why Laing’s methods have historical significance. Tennant does a great job in these scenes, embracing the sensitivity of the character rather than the arrogance in one brilliant scene in which he charms a mute patient at another facility, who had been locked away in a padded cell. It’s the film’s lack of focus – like a poorly assembled collage – that hurts Tennant’s performance, requiring him to shift with no sense of logic or progression. Elisabeth Moss is even more poorly served, spending most of the third act repeating the same monologue about how she’s “just ordinary” and so will always be less interesting to Laing than his patients.
Set against the backdrop of 1960s counterculture and flower power, it’s shocking how bland and colourless Mad To Be Normal often feels. This is a world that’s entirely grey and listless, whether within mental health facilities or out in the parties of the intelligentsia at which Laing often sits and holds court on his views. Mullan’s take on the 60s is seemingly as a time that’s hostile to everyone and, as such, it’s difficult to ever become invested in this supposedly charismatic man and the apparently thrilling ideas that lead him to be dubbed ‘The White Martin Luther King’ by some. The movie is never that exciting.
Pop or Poop?
David Tennant delivers a decent leading performance in Mad To Be Normal, but it’s a film that fails to understand why its central figure is interesting and significant. It’s overlong and curiously lacking in any of the energy, excitement and most of all, colour, that marked Laing out as a special, if flawed, man capable of expressing innovative and different beliefs.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.