Beyond madness

Stephanie Allan reviews the film 'Mad to Be Normal', directed by Robert Mullan.

I have more than a passing interest in the life and work of R.D Laing. I am diagnosed with schizophrenia, I live in Glasgow next to the blue plaque honouring his birthplace, and I sometimes work within spitting distance from where the rumpus room once stood – a place where people diagnosed with schizophrenia could escape the mundanity of the 1950s ward and have some fun. Laing is undoubtedly Scotland’s most famous psychiatrist, and was either a brilliant revolutionary or dangerous charlatan, depending on whom you ask.

The biography film Mad to Be Normal opens at the height of Laing’s fame during the 1960s. His books are selling well, America is calling, and Kingsley Hall is up and running in London. Kingsley Hall is at once both a spiritual successor to Glasgow’s rumpus room, and a therapeutic refugee community for people with mental illness. It is a stark alternative to the psychiatric care available at the time. The whole visuals of the piece appear to have been filmed through some sort of haze or smoke, and the colour palette and soundtrack have been painstakingly chosen to remind us that this is the 1960s.

The focus of the film is inevitably Laing himself (David Tennant). The impact of Laing’s work that resonates most heavily today is that madness is an understandable response to ‘unlivable situations’; he would even describe extreme mental states as a ‘voyage of self-discovery’. However, these passionate beliefs aren’t demonstrated in any of the Kingsley Hall characters, and I found their portrayal lacking. One scene that briefly portrays some of the childhood trauma experienced by the elderly Sydney (Michael Gambon) feels like an unexplored subplot. It is more a device to highlight that Laing gave LSD to his patients, rather than an acknowledgment that madness can be justified, valuable, or indeed a reasonable and understandable response to certain circumstances of human existence.

The story about how R.D Laing once joined a ‘rocking naked mute schizophrenic’ on the floor of her room has passed into legend. He took off his clothes and rocked alongside her, until she spoke for the first time in months. Here, he just takes off his trousers. Whilst the original story demonstrates a compassionate desire to find common ground, the film scene loses this. It becomes a tool with which to demonstrate that Laing’s abilities as a psychiatrist were at a level far beyond those of any common practitioner, and presents an image of Laing as a healer with almost mythical abilities. But the viewer learns nothing about the girl.

Despite the flaws of the film, Tennant is believably energetic and charismatic as Laing. More rock star than academic, he chain-smokes, curses at the psychiatric establishment, and dishes out LSD like sweeties. Societal stigma towards people with mental health issues is embodied in the fearful locals who throw bricks through the windows, and jeer at the Kingsley Hall residents. This sets up one of the most powerful scenes of the film, in which a furious Laing sets out to defend the people he has chosen to share living space with. Historical accuracy is played with once again to give Tennant’s portrayal emotional depth beyond madcap antics. His daughter’s death from cancer is brought forward to coincide with the Kingsley Hall period, despite the fact that she died years after it had shut.

I am unconvinced that this somewhat unsatisfying biopic will make newcomers to Laing develop any great desire to seek out his work. But although some of his ideas have perhaps not aged so well, his spirit lives on in those who look for explanations of madness beyond a simple medical model.

- Mad to Be Normal is on general release from 6 April (see also tinyurl.com/zr2huaf)

Reviewed by Stephanie Allan, a final-year undergraduate and peer research associate at Glasgow University

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