‘Mad to be Normal’ film screening

The second of last month’s two film screenings on the theme of ‘Class, Culture, and Mental Health in Post-War Britain’ was ‘Mad to Be Normal’ (2017) a biopic of infamous Scottish anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Jessica Campbell introduced the film on the day, and she reflects on its merits in this blog post.

Featuring an all-star cast including David Tennant (as Laing), Elizabeth Moss, and Michael Gambon, ‘Mad to be Normal’ explores the controversial psychiatric practices taking place at Laing’s Therapeutic Community, Kingsley Hall, in 1960s East London. Emphasising social, environmental and familial aspects of mental illness, Laing was a fervent opponent of institutional and interventionist approaches to mental health and sought to challenge accepted bio-medical models of psychiatric treatment by promoting socially-oriented forms of self-healing.

Advocating the use of therapeutic community models which were premised on flattened social hierarchies, Laing established Kingsley Hall as a site for psychiatric treatment based on a commune-style structure in which patients and staff lived together in shared spaces. Standing in stark contrast to the traditional asylum-based framework for psychiatric care which was under fierce attack at this time, Laing’s approach at Kingsley Hall has been considered by many as revolutionary, a more progressive form of mental healthcare provision which eschewed the use of tranquilising drugs and ECT.

Historians, on the other hand, remain utterly divided over Laing’s character, his practices and his legacy. Was he truly a progressive revolutionary seeking to better the lives of the mentally ill? Or was he simply experimenting with ethically dubious treatments in an act of fame-seeking showmanship? Given the complexity of Laing’s personal and professional life, the group watched the film with eager anticipation, intrigued to writer-director Robert Mullan’s cinematic interpretation.

They were not disappointed. David Tennant fantastically portrayed Laing’s mannerisms, speech and charisma with uncanny precision, giving viewers an insight into the volatility of his personality and his relationships, capturing both his compassionate approach to patients and family as well as his outlandish and at times arrogant behaviour, spurred on by his excessive drinking, partying and dabbling with recreational drugs, most controversially, with his patients. The choice of costume and setting, although perhaps clichéd, also vividly encapsulated the 1960s zeitgeist, presenting Kingsley Hall not only as a site for psychiatric treatment but for countercultural activities, pointing to the fact Laing was not merely an anti-psychiatrist, but a countercultural icon, an advocate of the left, a writer, artist, and a media star.

However, whilst Laing was characterised with flare and accuracy, other elements of the film were fundamentally lacking. Indeed, it was clear as to why the film never reached general release: poorly scripted and slow-moving, the editing was choppy with abrupt scene changes and an anti-climactic ending which failed to really capture the full complexity of Kingsley Hall and Laing’s life. Many of the individuals represented in the film were fictionalised, including American PhD student Angie Wood, who plays Laing’s lover, and a number of the patients, a curious feature considering the well-known experience of patient-artist Mary Barnes and the panoply of famous visitors who frequented the therapeutic community.

Although bringing the reality of mental illness into sharp relief, the characterisation of Kingsley Hall’s patients lacked depth, struggling to move beyond stereotypical portrayals of mental illness which were exacerbated by over-dramatised and sensational scenes of Laing’s experiments with LSD and the bizarre media-spectacle surrounding the birth of, and attempted attack by a patient on, Laing’s fictionalised child.  It seems that in some respects the film did not reach its full potential; Laing’s life and the story of Kingsley Hall arguably deserve a more nuanced and developed cinematic treatment that presents such a central tenet of the history of psychiatry with the candour and complexity it deserves.

Nevertheless, the film prompted a lively group discussion  in which topics such as the film’s historical accuracy, its cinematographic features and key questions regarding the tensions and challenges of mental healthcare provision in general were raised. Whilst perhaps lacking in cinematic quality, it was felt that the film’s exploration of alternative psychiatric treatments raised important questions about the care of society’s most vulnerable, holding especial resonance given Britain’s current mental healthcare crisis.

Jessica Campbell is a PhD student in Economic and Social History. Her primary research interests lie in the social history of medicine. Her doctoral project ‘From Moral Treatment to Mad Culture’ seeks to explore the themes of creativity and patient expression through a historical enquiry into the nature of alternative psychiatric therapies in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain.