I have been eagerly awaiting a film that is now in cinemas on limited release. It has a stellar ensemble cast – David Tennant, Elizabeth Moss ('Mad Men', 'Top of the Lake'), Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne – and its subject is the radical Glasgow-born (anti-) psychiatrist R D Laing (1927-1989). This year marks the 90th anniversary of Laing's birth. Tennant's manic energy and beady-eyed intensity are a perfect fit for the projected charisma and exaggerated mannerisms of the media-savvy countercultural hero; and Moss is a wonderful character actor with a great capacity for wit and warmth.
Yet despite a cast made in heaven, Robert Mullan's biopic, 'Mad to be Normal' (taking its name from the director's 1995 biography) is a disappointment and missed opportunity. Moss plays student, then Laing's wife, Angie Wood (a totally fictionalised character) at first bedazzled by the great man's brilliance, then bearing his child and finally the burden of the clichéd role of shrewish wife of maverick genius. Their relationship is made to carry all of the dramatic tension of the film, offering little insight into this deeply conflicted man, although it may help explain the film's weird disclaimer that any resemblance to real people is 'entirely coincidental'.
Mullan's 1995 biography was based on 'conversations' with the psychiatrist – a great storyteller himself and self-confessed self-mythologiser who even admitted to frequently playing the role of R D Laing. Laing's narcissistic desire to become famous at all costs may have been his ultimate undoing. He fathered six sons and four daughters by four women, had little or nothing to do with them and yet was known (and regarded himself) as a family psychiatrist. Such irony coupled with Laing's mix of genius and egomania should be catnip for any nuanced, ambitious drama.
Yet despite such rich material, instead of offering a fresh, layered portrait of a complex figure (as both man and guru) 'Mad to be Normal' pays more attention to Laing's speech patterns and other mannerisms (well captured by Tennant) than to delving into what made him tick. Similarly, an obsession with period detail, with interiors and costumes dripping with 60s dun-coloured walls and pointy collared flowery shirts, stands in for any real commitment to telling an engaging story.
The scene where Laing visits his family back in Glasgow might have shone some light on the psychiatrist's background. Laing's mother was by all accounts an odd woman and may have had a psychotic illness, but the battle-axe portrayal given here is risible. Also, fictionalising the real-life death of Laing's daughter Susan from leukemia by bringing it forward a decade is a temporal (and somewhat tasteless) contrivance to elicit sympathy that fails to compensate for the film's lack of a strong narrative drive. The abrupt ending in the middle of a romp is equally bizarre and straight out of a Boys Own comic, and seeming to take the place of the denouement that never happens.
Mullan confines himself to the 1960s when Laing became an international media star. 'The Divided Self', Laing's most celebrated book was first published in 1960 and became popular with the public when it came out in a Penguin paperback in 1965. The film's central focus is on 1965 to 1970 when Laing was most active in his pet project at Kingsley Hall in the east end of London, where he lived and worked with a loose community of patients suffering from various forms of psychosis. Group therapy and listening replaced pharmaceutical drugs and ECT, while the use of alternative drugs like LSD was prescribed. Laing regarded patients' experiences, however delusional, as meaningful in their own terms, rather than as symptoms of mental illness.
The director's constricted time period need not have limited the film's scope or ambition, since, after all, one of film's major strengths is its ability to play with time. There is none of that in 'Mad to be Normal', limited as it is to an almost theatrical line-up of sketches, one after the other, illustrating scenes from the life of Laing at the time.
There have been several films about R D Laing, including the 1972 documentary 'Asylum' in which he appears as himself. The most recent (apart from 'Mad to be Normal') is Glasgow-born Luke Fowler's 90-minute documentary 'All Divided Selves' that was shortlisted for the 2011 Turner prize. Fowler's film also pays attention to Kingsley Hall but unlike 'Mad to be Normal' it places time and memory centre-stage, in common with his other cinematic portraits of 'vanguard' thinkers such as E P Thompson. These aim to recover forgotten histories that might help us question our relationship to the past and our memories of it.
As befits its artist-director, 'All Divided Selves' looks sideways at the celebrity psychiatrist, combining archive footage of Laing, his critics, treatment sessions at Kingsley Hall and the inner workings of medical establishments, with Fowler's own personal footage, shot on 16mm film. The archival footage, all gleaned from existing celluloid and video material broadcast or shot between 1959 and 1991, includes television interviews that chart the psychiatrist's alcohol-related decline. There is no overarching commentary and the result is an absorbing composite of clashing points of view and incompatible filmic registers.
Thus, for every clip of Laing expounding on his theories on schizophrenia and the 'military-industrial complex' there is a mainstream psychiatrist extolling the value of medication. If we see a disturbing clip of one of Laing's patients receiving a sharp thump on the head in a group therapy session, we then witness a deeply distressing scene of a hospitalised woman, doped to the eyeballs, wheeled in and out of a room of medical students, succumbing resignedly to her psychiatrist's exhortations: 'Ok I give in. I'll take the lithium'. In 'Mad to be Normal', Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne play fictional patients Sydney and Jim who function as cyphers for the virtues and deficiencies of the methods of treatment used by Laing. This feels glib and stagey compared with the powerful real-life scenes in Fowler's film.
Fowler's many short scenes are intercut with secondary footage of life outside, shot over two summers: sun dances on water, insects struggle in algae, a child plays with his father. We see interiors of Fowler's family house: his mother (my friend and former colleague, the sociologist Bridget Fowler) on the phone, the edge of a chair, light and shadow flitting over it – all overlaid by a haunting folk-song and single refrain, 'All that is hidden is revealed'.
The effect is a vivid sense of reality pressing in. Whether focusing on the fine grain of everyday life or seeking overlooked aspects of the recent past, Fowler's allusive film proposes a mode of attention that requires active engagement with the world. Through juxtaposing different time frames the artist-director's sustained probing reveals much about its complex subject and the changing times in which he lived. R D Laing's contribution to psychiatry is still contested. Luke Fowler's intricately woven film is a fitting tribute that does justice to Laing's troubled life and legacy.
Luke Fowler's film is available from LUX