David Tennant has rightly gained much praise and renown for his television work, such as his stints on “Dr Who” and “Broadchurch”.
He has yet though to do the same on the big screen and. though his leading role as Scottish born psychiatrist R.D. Laing is great casting, the film itself, when released last year to a tiny theatrical distribution, failed to give him that breakthrough role. The film is now released on VOD only – no DVD or HD sales. The reason for the film’s low profile so far is probably its difficult to market subject and its modest production values, which is a pity, as it has a story worth telling.
The film is set in the years 1965-70, when Laing, a cult figure with many from his best selling book “The Divided Self”, was running the Kingsley Hall project in the East End of London. At a time when mental health patients are still being incarcerated in grim wards and subject to brutal electric shock and liquid cosh drug treatments, Laing, who has developed his theories via Eastern philosophy and American cult figure Timothy Leary amongst others, is running a sort of commune for the mentally ill, where therapists and patients live together and prescription drugs are banned. Not though recreational ones. His treatment consists largely of letting the patient talk through his or her condition, when they were ready to do so and to be heard. His theory – a breakdown can be a breakthrough.
Laing himself though has problems of his own, as we see in the film. He is no angel. Heavy drinking and sometimes depressive, his theory that psychosis starts with the traditional family upbringing appears to be rooted in his own dysfunctional childhood. As portrayed by Tennant, he is both deeply caring of his patients’ problems and incapable of solving his own and those of his own family. His often dysfunctional relationships with the opposite sex are largely rolled into the fictional character of his acolyte and lover Angela (Elizabeth Moss), who comes over as a rather annoying and manipulative woman.
A lot of the story is told through short scenes, which are almost illustrated sketches from his patients’ casebooks. They include the sometimes amiable but potentially violent Jim (Gabriel Byrne); a young mother Maria (Olivia Poulet), suffering from extended post natal depression and a most affecting performance from Michael Gambon as 73 year old Sydney, struggling to cope with the childhood trauma of seeing his mother murdered by his father – an experience he recalls in detail, when prescribed LSD by Laing.
One of the most effective illustrations of Laing’s methods is a scene, when he is on a book and lecture tour of America and he creates a breakthrough in the treatment of a catatonic young woman, who is incarcerated in a padded cell, by the use of gentle talk, stripping off his clothes, acupressure and pizza. Much to the fury of her conventional psychiatrist.
The somewhat bitty nature of the film’s structure mitigates against its narrative flow but Tennant constantly holds the attention, cockily confident, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes infuriating and even hateful. And there are also some excellent supporting performances, which also include David Bamber as one of Laing’s most fervent opponents in the medical establishment and a poignant cameo from Linda Hargreaves as the concerned mother of one of the patients.
As to Laing’s legacy, although some of his ideas have been discredited, others, such the development of cognitive, group and other therapies, have found their way into the mainstream of what is thankfully a more compassionate approach to the treatment of mental health problems.