Film review: Mad to be Normal

David Tennant in 'Mad To Be Normal'

David Tennant in 'Mad To Be Normal'

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From Casanova and Doctor Who to Broadchurch and Jessica Jones, David Tennant’s TV career has been anything but small.

On the big screen, however, the opposite is true. Great roles have somehow eluded him.

Save for an enjoyable turn in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, his movie credits read like a hellish purgatory, as if he’s been denied access to the good stuff for reasons too baffling to comprehend.

Sadly, Mad To Be Normal (**) doesn’t change that.

Cast as controversial Scottish psychotherapist R.D. Laing, Tennant does good work in a dream role, but the film around him – which received its world premiere as the closing night gala of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – just isn’t very good.

A mishmash of overheated biopic clichés, unconvincing dramatic embellishments and clunky period details, it relies heavily on Tennant’s magnetism to convey Laing’s importance, yet lacks the requisite vision to make his story compelling as a film.

Writer/director Robert Mullan might know his subject intimately having interviewed him extensively for his own 1995 biography, but that intimacy doesn’t come across in the film, which narrows its focus to explore Laing’s establishment-challenging work treating mental illness without medication at Kingsley Hall clinic — a sort of anti-asylum — in London in the 1960s.

Picking up his story after his counterculture celebrity has already been established following the publication of The Divided Self, the film proceeds to explore whether Laing’s dedication to his patients was born out of a desire to fix himself or them. What emerges is a rather dreary portrait of a contradictory maverick whose advocacy of compassion towards the mentally ill didn’t extend to his treatment of his own estranged children.

Mullan plays fast and loose with the truth in some major ways here, changing the timeline of one family tragedy in particular to give the rather shapeless story some emotional heft. Similarly, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss – cast as a student admirer turned girlfriend – seems to be on hand to function as an emotive narrative device rather an actual person.

Her potential victim status amid the (at one-point literal) moon-howlers is dubiously exploited for tension, especially when her character’s subsequent pregnancy threatens the chaotic harmony of Laing’s life with his patients. Supporting turns by Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon add little, with the TV movie scope ensuring subplots fall by the wayside, much like the film itself, which ends unexpectedly and unsatisfactorily in the middle of a scene.

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