Cradle to the grave biopics often feel contrived in their insistence to fit in every significant moment in the subject’s life. However of late filmmakers have stripped back this sub-genre to focus in on certain relationships, brief moments of time, utilising such events to be emblematic of the protagonist, and everything they stand for. Robert Mullan’s Mad to be Normal, the biopic of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing follows this very trend, getting into the mind of this multi-faceted, nuanced individual through the prism of his relationship with American Angie Wood.
Laing (David Tennant) is a revolutionary doctor who believes in the practise of freedom. Focusing all of his energy on supporting patients suffering from severe mental health issues, he has a disdain for the prison-like environment of institutions, believing that to help people through their problems, you should be seeking to understand them, rather than merely locking them away. So he opened Kingsley Hall, a commune of sorts, where he allows his patients the ability to roam freely. He also gets very close to certain individuals, such as Jim (Gabriel Byrne) and Sydney (Michael Gambon) – even offering LSD as a means of tapping in to their mind. It’s a tough job and it comes with its controversy, but amidst the sea of naysayers is Angie (Elisabeth Moss) – who enters in to an intense relationship with the contentious doctor.
Though an interesting narrative, with a fascinating character at the heart of it, the film struggles to transcend the usual biopic fodder, only truly standing out from the crowd thanks to the glorious depiction of London. Set during the swinging sixties, with a Carnaby Street vibe, it makes for an indelible tone, with that ever-changing landscape and sense of community and freedom contrasting effectively with the internalised hell so many of these poor patients find themselves lost in. What also comes with the territory of this particular setting, is a fantastic soundtrack.
Given this remains an intimate character study of Laing, it requires an impressive performance from Tennant and it’s one he duly provides. Though we do struggle to quite understand him and his unique way of thinking, this feels somewhat deliberate given he was as a tough a case to deconstruct as so many of his patients. Yet we do find ourselves rooting for him, such is the charisma and affability Tennant brings, in spite of the darker qualities to his character’s demeanour. It’s this endearing presence that allows for the film to work as it’s such a vital quality the character requires, and one many actors may have stumbled upon.
Laing himself is one of many characters we strive to understand – and this is why the film, though flawed, remains engaging, for while we expect the patients and those surrounding Laing to be wholly unpredictable, and even a little nervously volatile in parts, there’s little respite in that regard, for even the subject, the man we seek to embody, is one we can never second guess – and this does nothing but enriches the viewer’s experience.