Mad to be Normal

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Controversial, notorious, radical, revolutionary – flick through the reviews of Robert Mullan’s Mad to be Normal and you’ll find the same words used again and again to describe RD Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist at the centre of the film.  We looked at Laing in 9.3 Doctor and patient: anti-psychiatry revisited, in the context of challenges to psychiatry, and discussed his belief that madness could be part of a process of regeneration. Within the context of the physicality of most mid twentieth century innovations in psychiatric treatment, including the use of the new psychotropic drugs, Laing’s approach was indeed radical.  Mullan’s film explores Laing’s ideas by focussing on a particular part of his life, a short period within the walls of his ‘therapeutic community’ at Kingsley Hall.

Mad to be Normal provides an enticing glimpse into Laing’s ideas, practices and personality, albeit through a highly fictionalised lens.  The patients featured are not based on real people but are composite characters from different cases, and the community is represented as something of a candlelit hippy colony, when in fact, radical though it was, Kingsley Hall was world renowned. The film’s greatest strength is undoubtedly the performance given by David Tennant, whose portrayal of the hard drinking, chain-smoking Laing is immensely enjoyable, and you are unlikely to come away with the idea that you would like to invite RD Laing round for dinner, or let him marry your daughter.

The film is shot in a jumpy, discontinuous format, which takes a little getting used to, and has no real beginning or end – it drops us into the Kingsley Hall period and leaves us wondering what could follow.  It’s a challenging film, which offers some insight into the realities of mental illness and poses questions about what’s ethical, what’s effective, and what’s actually possible.  David Bamber’s exasperated psychiatrist, convinced of the value of ECT, cannot explain why it works, yet the apparent success of Laing’s empathetic approach is ultimately overshadowed by his inability to prevent intelligent, sensitive Jim from sliding into madness.

Mad to be Normal is on limited release in cinema throughout the UK – coincidentally, one of the classic films with an anti-psychiatry theme, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is back in selected cinemas for a very short run, to mark the 80th birthday of its star, Jack Nicholson.

Morag Allan Campbell

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