Accurately conveying mental illness and the efforts of psychologists to treat it poses a real challenge for film-makers. Too much gravity, and the film proves mawkish, depressing work for the viewer; too little, however, trivialises a serious subject which personally affects many people. Striking the balance is extremely difficult, but Mad To Be Normal achieves this largely thanks to the efforts of director and screenwriter Robert Mullan.
‘In an industry where cinematography is too often mechanical and stale, Mullan’s film-making flair is a rare delight’
Fresh from the success of Gitel, his 2015 Holocaust drama, Mullan has obvious experience in creating compelling films whilst treating the subject with due respect and deference. In Mad To Be Normal, Mullan provides a semi-biographical depiction of controversial Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing, who rebelled against traditional treatments such as electronic shock therapy and padded cells in favour of a holistic approach focused on drug use and meditation. Mullan saves us a blow-by-blow retelling of Laing’s life; instead showcasing snapshots to illustrate the progress of his work and relationships. Rather than artificially informing us that a year has passed, Laing’s relationship has progressed from its infancy in one scene to him discussing having a baby in another. This is just one example of the film’s creative and innovative cinematography; another is seen by a patient’s claustrophobia being represented by the camera getting closer and closer to the actors, losing focus and muffling the audio in time with her anxiety. Other scenes use colour creatively, with the actors bathed in darkness after a failed experiment, or red light seeping into the room following a disastrous radio interview. In an industry where cinematography is too often mechanical and stale (medium shot, close up, reverse shot, repeat), Mullan’s film-making flair is a rare delight.
Of course, this creativity and endeavour would be wasted if not for acting performances to match. It should come as little surprise that David Tennant is impeccable as the eccentric Laing, oozing charisma and firmly in the spotlight in every scene. Tennant’s emotional range is incredible, flowing effortlessly from drunken depression to capricious joy in front of reporters. He’s ably paired by Elisabeth Moss (who plays his partner, Angie) of Mad Men and Handmaid’s Tale fame, who has superb chemistry with Tennant as the two spar with each other. Her infatuation with Laing is almost tangible, further credit to her performance here. Although the relationship between the two is at the forefront of the film, we are spoiled by Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon’s excellent portrayals of mental patients at Laing’s Kingsley Hall institution. It is certainly refreshing to see a three-dimensional representation of mentally ill people, where Hollywood has traditionally resorted to caricatures whose personalities are solely comprised of their mental condition.
‘Tennant’s emotional range is incredible, flowing effortlessly from drunken depression to capricious joy’
The film isn’t without flaws, however. The narrative structure may be innovative and unique, but that doesn’t stop it feeling disjointed and disorientating at times. Sometimes, character arc developments (such as Laing’s partner Angie wanting a child) occur off-screen, and so have to be clumsily imparted to the viewer via direct dialogue, rather than in a more compelling fashion. Furthermore, you’ll finish feeling faintly cheated of a conclusive ending, with several plot threads unresolved and character relationships in flux. This could very well be an intentional ploy by Mullan, commenting on how ‘real life’ itself rarely ends conveniently (especially when mental illnesses are involved), but it still feels jolting and abrupt. The tone is appropriately maudlin, but at some stages I found it to be unnecessarily dreary; the dark lighting and claustrophobic camerawork likewise has an obvious purpose, but can still render the film an ordeal to watch at points. Although the story intentionally focuses on the relationship between Angie and Baird, some of the side characters feel underdeveloped by comparison. Of course, it is easier said than done, but I feel that the disparate moments of Baird’s career could have been better presented in an episodic television format (similar to shows such as Taboo), where the characters could be unpacked and developed more comprehensively without the time pressure of a film format.
Nevertheless, Robert Mullan’s fourth feature-length film continues in the vein of his other creations, offering a claustrophobic and emotional character drama picking over one of the darker aspects of modern culture. Tennant and Moss steal the show with excellent character portrayals, and are ably supported (albeit in minor roles) by Gambon and Byrne. The cinematography is also worthy of selective praise, with intelligent colour coding and imaginative angles and cuts. Akin to his other creations, Mad To Be Normal verges on voyeuristic depression at times – it teeters on the tightrope between a sober portrayal of a genuine cultural issue many are keen to avoid, and being overly lachrymose. Regardless of the success of the film, it deserves plaudits for daring to display mental illness in its entirety, rather than the two-dimensional or sanitised portrayals seen elsewhere in cinema. From me, it is a definite recommendation on the grounds of the subject matter and cinematography, but with the caveat that it should not be approached lightly, and may prove an endeavour at points.