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D: Robert Mullan / 105m

Cast: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne, David Bamber, Adam Paul Harvey, Olivia Poulet, Jerome Holder, Lydia Orange, Tom Richards

Beginning in 1965, the noted psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Tennant) was the head of the Philadelphia Association, a community-based psychiatric project based at Kingsley Hall in London’s  East End. There, therapists and patients lived together, and the aim was to provide a restraint-free, drug-free environment for those afflicted by schizophrenia. It was a pioneering experiment that drew plenty of criticism from the psychiatric establishment of the time, which decried Laing’s rejection of traditional treatments such as constant sedation and electro-convulsive therapy. For the purposes of Mad to Be Normal, Laing’s relationship with his girlfriend at the time, Jutta Werner, is transposed into one with an ambitious American student called Angie Wood (Moss). Their relationship provides the backbone of Robert Mullan’s movie, a serious yet distant piece that only superficially explores both Laing the man and Laing the health care professional. While he deals with the dynamics of their relationship, Laing also fights off challenges from the establishment (in the form of David Bamber’s blinkered traditionalist), and the patients at Kingsley Hall itself.

These patients include Sydney (Gambon), an elderly childhood trauma sufferer, Maria (Poulet), who can’t forgive herself for losing her baby, John (Holder), who hears voices, and Jim (Byrne), whose obsession with the moon belies violent tendencies relating to childbirth. The movie works well when it focuses on the patients, and there’s a terrific scene set in New York where Laing coaxes responses from a young woman, Sarah (Orange), who doesn’t speak or eat or otherwise engage with anyone. But away from these interactions, Laing’s life and commitment to his work don’t have the same impact, or come anywhere close to it. This is a major drawback for the movie as a whole, because though there is plenty of tension and dramatic incident borne out of Mullan and co-screenwriter Tracy Moreton’s script, Mullan doesn’t seem to know how to present these incidents in such a way that we get a clear insight into Laing’s own mental processes. He’s eloquent enough when challenged, and Tennant displays a passion and commitment to the role that gets the character through several moments where the drama lapses into soap opera, but as to the man himself, and his reasons for doing the work he does, this isn’t necessarily the forum for that kind of revelation.

This leaves the movie focusing mainly on said challenges, and the slow descent into violent madness experienced by Jim. Despite a terrific performance from Byrne, though, Jim’s story is predictable in the extreme, and the irony of his eventual treatment is hammered home with all the subtlety of an ECT session. But while Byrne is gifted with possibly the best role in the movie (it reminds you just how good an actor he is), Moss is left stranded by a role that keeps her sidelined for much of the running time, and which reduces Angie to the status of a secondary character, even when she has Laing’s child (though not his first; a subplot involving the five children he already has is thrown in for good but not lasting measure). Mullan and the script rarely attempt to explore the efficacy of the work carried out at Kingsley Hall, or show if there is any improvement gained by any of the patients there, and so we see patients behaving erratically though consistently, while Laing becomes more and more depressed himself. That there’s no real dramatic conclusion to all this – the movie ends very abruptly – doesn’t help either, leaving the viewer to wonder if there was any point to the movie, and on which level.

Rating: 6/10 – an uneven and dramatically unsatisfying look at a pivotal moment in the annals of “alternative psychiatry”, Mad to Be Normal is predicated on the assumption that Laing knew exactly what he was doing – and then doesn’t show the viewer how or why he was doing it; rescued by a clutch of good performances, the movie short changes Laing in favour of a routinely mounted biography that only skims the surface of its controversial and charismatic central character.