2018 Film Essays

An Expedient Portrait: Robert Mullan’s ‘Mad to Be Normal’

It is a propitious time to return to the life of radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Many of the cleavages Laing identified in his “anti-psychiatry” vanguard of the late 60s and 70s appear to have re-emerged: old assumptions are receding, an epoch is corroding, the restlessness of ’68 is resurgent. Laing’s ideas became a cause célèbre for the New Left which emerged out of the Situationist International and the teachings of the Frankfurt School. It is important to view Laing in the context of that social upheaval. The postmodern questioning of every societal shibboleth served as a launching pad for Laing’s assault on the psychiatric establishment.

Laing propounded a radical thesis wherein those determined to be suffering from mental illness were in fact canaries in the coalmine of a greater anomie afflicting the society that designated them as such. Existing social structures act as an incubator of the malaise it then seeks to pathologize. Laing’s teachings and practices were examined by documentarian Adam Curtis in his masterly BBC series The Trap (2007), and were captured in the fascinating documentary Asylum (1972), which shows — in stark detail — one of Laing’s “therapeutic communities,” Kingsley Hall, where a group of schizophrenic patients live independently.

In one emblematic scene from Asylum, Laing is shown visibly revelling in the discord which begins to envelope the household, a wry smirk on his face. It is this characterisation of Laing as the counterculture “maverick” — whose methods veer erratically between inspired innovation and callous calculation — which has become predominant. Much like with Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson, it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle myth from fact.

Mad to Be Normal decides to sidestep any controversy by essentially stripping Laing of any troubling baggage — he is reduced to a Nehru-shirted groovy guru who enrages the establishment stuffed shirts with his offbeat brilliance. Tracy Moreton and Robert Mullan’s screenplay peddles the kind of “gifted but difficult” clichés that permeate the most formulaic medical drama. There is astoundingly little insight into Laing’s professional life; David Tennant’s Laing is the chain-smoking patriarch of his own little flock, whose gruff demeanour masks the burden of the psychic cross he must bear; a garrulous font of caustic aphorisms. It’s the Don Draper-isation of R.D. Laing, with Elisabeth Moss as his star-struck Peggy Olson, simply grateful to be captured in the glare of his gift.

Visually, Mad to Be Normal is equally pedestrian. Mullan’s direction is staid and televisual in the worst way, failing to lend the confrontations any propulsive power, while Ali Asad’s cinematography wraps everything in gauzy lighting patterns which are almost expressionistic in their desire to imbue the frame with any sense of dynamism. The squalid Kingsley Hall one sees in Asylum is now swathed in an enervating miasma. There is a cramped, hermetic feel to the compositions; viewers are trapped in the microclimate of these febrile interiors. A couple of predictable picks from the pop canon denote this is “the 60s,” but the interiors are so extravagantly lit and tightly framed that nothing of the world creeps in.

Tennant has the Laing locutions and mannerisms down, but he provides a glib performance that relies on volume and motion to fix the deficiencies in the script. Moss is a particular waste as the insipid limpet clinging to a “great man”; she gives her all, but there is nothing in the material to rouse any emotion towards her character. Gabriel Byrne is engaging as a patient who evinces a slowly uncoiling threat, and Michael Gambon ably conveys the vacancy at the core of his character, but so many of the cast seem to be there simply to respond to Laing. David Bamber plays the embodiment of the establishment striving to suppress Laing’s ideas, but his Dr. Meredith is never sufficiently fleshed out to serve as a functioning antagonist, and the opportunity to dramatise some of these broader conflicts is sacrificed to romantic strife.

As a primer on Laing, Mad to be Normal offers nothing substantive; there is little attempt to explicate Laing’s ideas, or to pursue how he formulated those ideas while working in Glasgow’s mental hospitals — both of which would have been interesting to explore, but have no place in the film’s dramatic schema. There is a fascinating film to be made about Laing and his legacy on mental health, but Mad to Be Normal has none of the drama, anguish and pathos to be found in Asylum, to which I would direct anyone interested in exploring Laing and the prevailing theories of the period. The iconoclast is softened into a charming cynic; this characterisation may be more palatable, but it is fundamentally dishonest, and the film cannot escape from under the weight of its failure to frame Laing within the proper context.

The irony of Made to Be Normal is that the man who did more than anyone to expose the daily machinations which underpin the modern family is trapped here in a rather tedious domestic drama. For a figure so complex and divisive, this is the worst kind of whitewashing, bathing him in virtue while reducing his inner conflicts to minor plot points that spark empty theatrics. Insightful as he was on many subjects, Laing left considerable wreckage in his wake, which is something the film’s portrait of a tortured genius cannot countenance.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.