Mad To Be Normal movie review: Beyond its superb cast, this RD Laing biopic struggles to hold its ground

Anupam Kant Verma

Nov 07, 2018 10:40:22 IST


Disclaimer: The reviewer professes a great regard for the ideas upheld and propagated by the subject of this ‘biopic’.

Which should explain why I was immediately alarmed by the title chosen by the makers of this ‘biopic’. It hankers for attention. It’s hard not to sound intriguing if you choose to put the words mad and normal within the same sentence. The trouble with seeking attention is that it can often draw focus on the wrong aspect of a work of art. Although the film on the whole doesn’t turn out that way, in certain passages it can’t help but live up to its title.

Director Robert Mullan chooses to depict a handful of years from the life of a person whose ideas stood in radical opposition to the conventional ideas held about psychiatry during his time. RD Laing — him of the ‘life is a sexually transmitted disease’ fame — ran a commune called Kingsley Hall in London, which was worlds away from the clinics for mental patients of the time. Drugs were seldom administered. The patients were allowed to be themselves. Role play was common. Listening and conversing were part of the healing process. LSD and DMT was common. Laing viewed his patients as being sane in an insane world. It was the 60’s for Pete’s sake. Unsurprisingly, the rise and eventual demise of Laing’s grand experiment parallels the counter-culture movement that had been birthed across the Atlantic.

David Tennant’s Laing is the charismatic, articulate and strange being at the centre of Mullan’s film. It is an inspired casting choice. Paired with Elisabeth Moss’ Angie, it is hard to look away from the screen during their exchanges. Tennant, like Laing with Kingsley Hall, carries the film on his more than worthy shoulders with elan. His enormous gifts as an actor are on full display. It must be said that Mullan got at least one thing totally right: his casting. It’s hard to go wrong with talents like Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon involved. Albeit overshadowed by Tennant’s towering turn, they nonetheless power the film in the right direction, pulling it through the drab passages.

 Mad To Be Normal movie review: Beyond its superb cast, this RD Laing biopic struggles to hold its ground

Elisabeth Moss, David Tennant, Gabriel Byrne in a still from Mad To Be Normal. Image via Amazon Prime Video

Once you look beyond the supreme acting talent on display, the film struggles to hold its ground. Laing’s ideas are presented in a manner completely out of sync with the personality that birthed them. Mullan’s engagement with them is flirtatious and often too earnest, ill-fitting the abstractions that lay the groundwork for Kingsley Hall. The rhythms of the conventional biopic start rearing their heads at the expected moments, in effect shearing away from Laing’s radical legacy. He was by all means a divisive figure, the flaws in whose ideas were as notable as their significance and moral courage. Mullan takes too long to present the other side of Laing’s ideas. Therefore, for anyone with a passing knowledge of Laing’s life and ideas, the film fails to offer much of substance.

One can only recommend it as a gateway film to Laing’s astonishing range of ideas about society, parenthood, psychiatry and life itself.

Mullan’s film is remarkably narrow in scope for a personality gifted with an extraordinarily open mind. There are potentially illuminating moments showing the conflict that arises out of being out of step with conventional thought. But the presentation is hackneyed and not remotely intriguing. Laing has a hard time accepting a conventional relationship. Cue a domestic. Kingsley Hall inspires popular outrage. Cue a stone through the window. The less said about the writing in these sequences, the better.

One gets the feeling that the director isn’t particularly gifted at depicting tension. The scene with Laing and his mother could have been a veritable goldmine to offer insights into the genesis of his ideas about parenthood. But that opportunity is uniquely wasted. Soon, we become used to being frustrated by our own attempts to try and understand Laing, the man. Mullan might indeed be going for a patchwork approach, perhaps imitating the mind of his protagonist, which was pulled in a hundred ways by the potentially wide range of applications of his ideas. But with the ideas not represented ably, the approach turns into a hodgepodge full of hints of seances, shamans, mandalas, drugs, drink and confusion.

I would like to think of Mad to be Normal as a chamber piece, a portrait of a unique time in history. For it would certainly be a failure as a biopic. But when considered in the light of the swirl of ideas and urges that defined the time, the film gains weight and importance. A period when the journey truly mattered more than the destination, when playing it by ear was more than a phrase and the scent of flowers and distant incense rendered time aromatic. It is a film mooning in nostalgia, replete with the amber lighting and funky clothing. Maybe because it is a portrait of what’s been lost, forever entombed under layers of honey and bandages. When discovered by an enterprising soul after centuries, it arouses fear, exhilaration and suspicion at first, before slowly giving off the aroma of ideas that hopefully feel contemporaneous and relatable, and thus too liberating for the time they were shunned by.

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 10:40:22 IST