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Mad To Be Normal, film review: ‘Tennant brings charisma to a rambling tale’

PUBLISHED: 18:00 31 March 2017

Elizabeth Moss, David Tennant and Gabriel Byrne star in Mad To Be Normal. Picture: Paul Stephenson

Elizabeth Moss, David Tennant and Gabriel Byrne star in Mad To Be Normal. Picture: Paul Stephenson

THE BEAUTIFUL IMAGE

The film’s approach would surely meet with the institution’s approval: nothing is too structured, nothing is forced, no judgment is made and the characters are allowed to express themselves largely free of the imposition of narrative

In a modern day film about the sixties, the sixties period detail is often a potent signifier. In, say, X-Men: First Class it communicates a sense of lost glamour; while in the Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side it suggests the sense of a scuzzy demi-world where the force of social revolution crashed against the drab reality of England outside swinging Chelsea and the West End.

The sixties period detail in this film about R.D. Laing is positively Withnailian, and it seems to signify a period of flux, a window of opportunity where any charismatic chancer could create a swirl around themselves that could pass for revolutionary in the absence of any perspective.

Glaswegian Laing was a psychiatrist who became a real counter culture figure; partly through his refusal to use drugs to treat mental illness. When I was at school he was still a big deal. (I remember being sat down to watch Ken Loach’s Family Life, which was based on his ideas.)

With his paisley shirts, unconventional approach, free thinking attitudes, cool sounding initials (oh to be a J.K., a J.R.R. or an R.D.) and string of “And then Timothy Leary said to me” anecdotes, Laing could well qualify as one of those sixties figures who seemed like a visionary during his chat show appearances of the time but whose reputation has gone astray in the last half century.

Mullan’s film concentrates on the last half of the sixties when Laing ran an institution at Kingsley Hall in the East End where patients and doctors lived together communally and there was no treatment other than talking to patients and trying to understand them.

The film’s approach would surely meet with the institution’s approval: nothing is too structured, nothing is forced, no judgment is made and the characters are allowed to express themselves largely free of the imposition of narrative.

The results are mixed: it is maddeningly lax, rambling and even a touch self indulgent but the participants really pull something out of themselves: Tennant immediately establishes the charisma that got Laing attention; Byrne and Gambon are compelling as two of his patients.

Like Laing’s therapy not much is resolved or advanced, but the sense of having gone through an intense experience is strong.

On halfmanhalfcritic.com the Blu-ray release of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog.

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