‘Up to my neck in other people’s emotional shit.’
R.D. Laing (1927-1989) is an example of someone you’re almost surprised you didn’t know about before you watched their biopic. A Scottish psychiatrist who wrote heavily and extensively about mental illness, he was something of a revolutionary within the field – regarded as in fact belonging to the anti-psychiatrist movement. His views on diagnosis, with an emphasis on experience as opposed to symptoms, lead him to unite with colleagues to form Kingsley Hall in 1965. It was there that he lived amongst them, ‘treating’ them by listening to them as opposed to forms of treatment such as electrotherapy, which he condemed.
The film follows him for some of these years – the focus being on the man (played by David Tennant) himself and the interactions he had with those around him. His introduction at the film’s outset is akin to that of a rock star – subsittuting an arena for a lecture theatre. Wearing his red velvet jacket, his arrival on-stage is soundtracked by The Kinks and the audience’s ardant admiration. He catches the eye of visiting American Angie (Elizabeth Moss). Post lecture she catches his eye too, uttering the kind of line only David Tennant can get away with, ‘You sound charming. You sound like someone I should propably be having lunch with.’ A relationship and a baby soon follow.
Although their relationship is the first thing we get introduced to, it’s sidelined in favour of showcasing Laing. Which is rather apt as it’s apparent that is what happened in reality; Laing put himself and his work (the two being irretrievably interwinded) before his family. We quickly learn whilst watching the film that he may have been good with dealing with and helping the problems of others, he really was unable to do the same for himself and those he loved.
Tennant and Moss are the biggest draws of the film. Moss doesn’t get much too work with as the downtrodden and quickly forgotten lover. She’s given minimal characterisation in terms of the script, yet she still manages to draw a lot from it. Her serenading Laing in the latter half of the film showcases multiple emotions; hurt, want, longing, fear and a degree of acceptance. It’s a captivating moment that sparkles, particuarly when all she’s really given to do in the film is complain (admittedly very deservedly) about how Laing treats her and her concerns about life in the community.
Tenannt simply dazzles in the lead role. His standout scene, the standout scene in the entire film, is during an overseas visit when he is shown the cell of someone else’s patient. Aghast at how she is treated, he insists on sitting with her. Slowly but steadily he communicates with her, acknowledging her existence in a way that no-one else has in what seems to be a long time. It’s sweet and tender, careful and caring – a stark contrast to some of the scenes he shares with Moss.
Hopping intermittently across an undisclosed time period, that seems to be a couple of years, we are given a brief insight into a great mind but not-so great man. It’s too slight to give much insight or depth into Laing and his life. Instead it offers a taster, a feel for who he was and some of the things he stood for, in a time when everyone around him strongly believed otherwise. And, with two good performances from two very good actors, it’s well worth a watch.
Mad To Be Normal will be available on VOD from 13th August.