Mad to be Normal
GFF 2017: David Tennant brings his manic energy to an otherwise disappointing biopic of RD Laing
The life of controversial Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing is potent material for a biopic. His unconventional methods appalled authorities but inspired many individuals, while his parenting skills left much to be desired. Director Robert Mullan has written three books on Laing, but opens his film with captions claiming both veracity and fiction. This might be considered an in-joke when dealing with the author of The Divided Self, but Mullan's partial fabrication of Laing's well-documented story robs Mad to Be Normal of authority at every turn.
Set in the 1960s and seen through the eyes of besotted student Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss), Ronnie Laing (David Tennant) is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking maverick presiding over the Kingsley Hall experiment, an East London community treating psychosis with empathy and LSD. Amongst his patients are straight-laced Sydney (Michael Gambon), and Jim (Gabriel Byrne) who has an unhealthy obsession with the moon. Laing's attentions are split between his patients and his estranged family in Glasgow, with ongoing stresses taking their toll on the counter-cultural guru.
Mullan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tracy Moreton) plays fast and loose with details. Instead of removing his clothes when talking to a naked, traumatised patient, Laing only takes off his trousers – a coy, symbolic gesture in comparison. Laing is shown having a breakdown at Kingsley Hall after counselling his own terminally-ill daughter, when she wasn't actually diagnosed until five years after Kingsley Hall shut. Such 'alternative facts' dilute who Laing was; the real man was far more complex than this fiction.
The plus here is Tennant, who unleashes his smarty-pants Doctor Who persona with a manic energy which carries Mullan's film to its vague, unsatisfying conclusion. Battling murky photography and desperately cheap period detail, Tennant at least seems game for capturing the spirit of Laing, rising above the film's trite, soap opera-like histrionics.
Screened on Sun 26 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2017. Selected release from Thu 6 Apr.