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FILM REVIEW: Mad to Be Normal

13 August 2018 | Jack Salvadori

It’s always tricky to address certain topics in a motion picture. Psychiatry is certainly one of them, with its painful, subtle shades, so problematic to capture properly on film. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is perhaps the most iconic example of a movie dealing with patients suffering from mental illnesses, turning the spotlight on the way they received treatments. Today, cinema offers a new take on the matter, in Mad to be Normal, which will be released on VOD channels on 13 August.

Set in the 1960s, Mad to Be Normal is a biopic focused on the radical and innovative psychiatric treatments conducted by Dr. Ronald David Laing. Fighting against the conventional, violent therapies employed at the time, such as electroshock and sedatives, Laing arranged his home in East London as a refuge for mentally ill patients. This psychedelic trip into the world of psychiatry focuses on the doctor’s total dedication towards his patients, leading to catastrophic consequences in his personal life, including the public backlash he faced against from a bigoted society and a skeptical medical world, too conservative to approve his unorthodox methods.

Image Credit: Mad to Be Normal, Goldfinch Studios

From Dr. Who to Dr. Laing, David Tennant stars as the pioneer psychiatrist, supported by a solid cast including Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne. Although all very talented performers, it is hard for the audience to actually connect with the characters, who, despite presenting different features, qualities and issues, remain strangers to us. We can identify them, but we don’t really know them at the end of the film.

Maintaining a constant depressive tone, the movie does not lack in strong emotional and confrontational scenes, and despite the LSD trips it offers very few moments of relief. Laing’s fragmented mind is mirrored by the discontinuous editing, a noteworthy stylistic touch which facilitates the pacing of the film, attempting to recreate the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Despite its 1960s setting, Mad to Be Normal’s themes are still significant today; Dr. Laing believed in freedom of expression, in the importance of human, natural relationships, proclaiming that a sociable approach, sometimes even just a bit of friendly care, would benefit more than a drug. He proved that listening to people, to their madness, sheltering them as they accept their condition, is more effective than silencing them with tranquillizers.

Image Credit: Mad to Be Normal, Goldfinch Studios

As the title suggests, the film is in conflict with normality, attempting to be a manifesto against conformity. It raises important questions and makes the viewers reflect upon ethical, real-life issues such as who is really mad: sick people or the ones electrocuting them to keep them quiet? Yet, by deliberately avoiding taking sides, the movie fails to provide any answers. Perhaps by choice, perhaps by insecurity, the picture limits itself to merely showing Laing’s methods and practices, both when they succeeded and when they were not enough, sterilely following his social experiments avoiding to praise or condemn the doctor.

Mad to Be Normal will be released on VOD (channels including iTunes, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Vubiquity, BT, Sky Store) on 13 August 2018.
 
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