Monday 30 July 2018

Mad to be Normal (UK 2018: Dir Robert Mullan)

While certain areas of the 1960s have been long plundered by filmmakers in pursuit of their own nostalgic vision, unearthing the UK counterculture of the time has largely been the province of writers - like Barry Miles - rather than movie directors.

Mad to be Normal details the attempts of one of the UK's leading countercultural lights - Scottish psychiatrist Ronald David (R.D.) Laing - to establish and (sort of) run Kingsley Hall, an east London free clinic where, between 1965 and 1970, patients with a variety of mental health conditions were (self) referred. Laing's groundbreaking work, based not on the prescription of pacifying drugs and the application of Electro Convulsive Therapy (in contrast to the medical establishments' practices of the time in treating mental 'disorders') but in breaking down the barriers between doctor and patient, and espousing a kind of 'do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' approach to therapy. Laing is as happy boozing with patients as he is trying to understand their psychoses, and describes Kingsley Hall not as a "mental institution, but a small household of people in different states of mind in the absence on power relations."

Director Robert Mullan, whose documentary background serves him well in the depictions of the clinic at work, chronicled the last two years of Laing's life (he died in 1989) and a book of those times, which bears the same title as the film, demonstrates the closeness of director and subject. Perhaps a little too close, as any real opposition to Laing's approach in the film is provided by the medical powers that be, a bunch of stuffed shirts that the audience is positively not required, or even allowed, to sympathise with.

Mullan's film starts off a little awkwardly with some rather obvious 1960s musical shorthand - 'Season of the Witch,' 'Tired of Waiting' and 'You Really Got Me' - to give us a sense of time and place. To be fair, this and some rather jarring insertions of real 'swinging London' footage into the action are the only obvious attempts to 'sixtiesise' the piece so glaringly; most of the drama takes place inside Kingsley Hall. But the director's message is clear; if you go against the establishment, the entitled classes will always win. Laing's work is a cipher for the mood of the 1960s - out with the old, in with the new, the children hating the parents and all they stand for (a view with which Laing had considerable sympathy). Mullan is to
Gabriel Byrne, Michael Gambon and David Tennant
in Mad to be Normal
be praised for letting Laing's own sangfroid be his undoing as much as the work he does - a growing sense of failure and disappointment surrounds the clinic, but Laing avoids the modern advice to 'fail and fail fast' and introduces LSD to his patients in an attempt to get to the heart of their problems. Laing's behaviour at home is also exposed - his incessant need for truth doesn't extend to niceties like keeping silence regarding information told to him in confidence by his daughter.

As Laing, David Tennant has rescued himself from a recent spate of indifferent roles. The actor has clearly done his homework, nailing the psychiatrist's accent and mannerisms perfectly. Arguably more thuggish and less cerebral than his subject, he nonetheless convinces with a combination of intensity and passion. His relationship with the bottle is nicely summed up by being asked if he'd like something to drink at lunch? "Just some Chianti," he orders nonchalantly, adding "first of the day."

Oddly but perhaps understandably none of the other characters in the film are based on real people, yet are strong enough to suggest otherwise. Elisabeth Moss is Angie Wood, an American student who falls in love with Laing at first sight and steers him through the highs and lows of the Kingsley Hall years. Angie is introduced to Laing by Jim (Gabriel Byrne), a staff member who also spends a lot of time receiving help in the clinic rather than dispensing it; Byrne, an actor who has been rather wasted recently, is brilliant in this, a nuanced but on the edge performance, all jowls and haunted eyes. Michael Gambon also turns in a considerate and mournful performance as Sydney Kotok, despite a rather crass LSD flashback sequence.

It is indeed a stellar cast which elevates the material above the risk of being at times a slightly slow and repetitive film to something infinitely better. But itis Tennant's wired, committed performance that you'll remember.

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