The psychiatrist R.D. Laing (David Tennant) has established himself in the mid-to-late nineteen-sixties as a maverick and a rebel in his profession. Not for him the treatment of his patients with medication or electro-convulsive therapy, he believes there is more to a sufferer of a mental illness like psychosis than a list of symptoms to be quashed, he thinks allowing the illness to run its course without chemical intervention can be a whole lot more helpful in the long run. Well, apart from a dose of LSD which can assist the patients in getting to grips with the troubles in their mind, a trial he performs at Kingsley Hall, his own halfway house set up to provide a home to those afflicted...
Laing was one of the most controversial of the counterculture gurus who emerged in the sixties, thanks to his writings being much read by the younger generation who found his philosophical pronouncements on madness and other topics refreshing and directly speaking to them. Even better, he was anti-establishment at a time when the generations were apparently pitted against one another, and his lectures became popular rallies for spreading his beliefs. It is perhaps odd that he had not been depicted in a biopic before Mad to Be Normal, a work from director Robert Mullan who actually knew Laing and seemed to believe he could bring an accurate interpretation.
He certainly had a casting coup with Tenant, who put in an electrifying performance, never better than when his Laing is dealing with his patients and providing a lot of the oomph the production otherwise lacked. His portrayal was of an arrogant but inspired free thinker who may be onto something with his revolutionary therapy techniques, but just as likely may be doing harm to those he can help by denying them the latest medications and treatments as laid down by the doctors he is rebelling against. In other hands, this persona could be petulant, or worse, a lecturer hanging out at the student's union bar and chatting up his disciples, yet Tennant refused to pander to that.
However, it was not all good, and it should be noted that Laing's family were unimpressed with what Mullan had dreamt up as they considered it inaccurate at best and fanciful at worst. Also significant: the card before the credits began that told us any connection to anyone living was purely coincidental, which basically let us know Mullan had invented his own ideas for what should have happened to Laing rather than what did. Even more alarm bells should have rung when the actress playing Laing's mistress, Elisabeth Moss, was not only essaying a fiction, but was a prominent Scientologist, which may prompt you to wonder what she was doing in a film ostensibly promoting psychiatry given the organisation she belonged to was dead set against the profession in accordance with their own deranged ideas.
In truth, Mad to Be Normal cannot make up its mind about Laing. Was he onto something in his stress on listening to the mental patient properly, rather than working down a list of questions and ticking off anything that may indicate a symptom then treating it with medication and other remedies? Behaving as if this afflicted soul is not going to be helped by placing them on a series of therapies as if psychosis is a physical disease and can be cured that way may work for some, but it doesn't work for all, and suffering from something difficult to pin down does not always mean medication can help alone - then again, some patients respond well to ECT, often depicted in pop culture as barbaric, as it is here. As there was no cure-all, at least Laing's notions that we were still dealing with human beings were worth remembering, yet here the spirit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest prevailed, with Laing as a McMurphy who somehow became a doctor, fine for allegory but not for real life. Music by Laurie Yule.