Three films about Ronnie Laing

Photo by John Haynes

Laing has been somewhat discredited by scientific advances — we now know many mental diseases, like schizophrenia, are at least partially mediated by genetics and biochemisty, and can’t be explained simply by family and social conflicts. His own alcoholism and chaotic family life left him vulnerable to tu coque attacks. And he has become a totem for a certain kind of challenging thinking — exciting or loathsome depending on your inclinations — that has been consigned to the past. Laing no longer seems current or even relevant.

Yet I would argue this is partly because we now take his lessons for granted. In theory, if not always in practice, we now recognise the right to agency and acknowledge the lived experience of those who do not fit norms. We now agree it might be better to live through mental health problems and engage them with open eyes, rather than hiding from them, or smothering them with the postponement of sedation.

This week I watched two very different films about Laing, both feature length debuts.

Mad to be Normal (2017)

Robert Mullan’s film, starring David Tennant and Elizabeth Moss, was strangely uninteresting. Tennant was quite good, and looked and sounded quite a bit like Laing. Moss was fine but not very engaging. The film tried to make a narrative arc out of a fictional romance but failed, I think, to meaningfully respond to much of Laing’s thought or the kind of experiences that contribute to it. The attempts to portray the menace and humour of madness didn’t really land, nor did the suffering. It didn’t seem existential. The episodes of personal tragedy were only there to try and coerce affect from the viewer. The film did, however, illustrate the danger of being romantically attracted to greatness: discovering greatness is selfish, and being left in the ‘shadow’, as Moss’s character jokes she’ll name her child. Maybe this is the crux of the film. It has a crush on the idea of Laing, and 60s radicalism, and smoking, but not any kind of mature relationship with an exchange of ideas. You can watch it if you’re desperate on Amazon Prime.

All Divided Selves (2011)

I grokked Luke Fowler’s film. It was very well paced. Built from extensive archive footage it gave a much better idea of what I understand Laing to have been about. This was interspersed with sensual moments filmed by Fowler and overlaid with field recordings and music that, taken as a whole, S-Chewed hackneyed bionarrative to become something far more absorbing. Within this frame, Laing’s pronouncements became hypnotic poetry. You can read more about it here, and watch it below:

Asylum (1972)

I also watched Peter Robinson’s fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary Asylum in the recent past. The film gives a much better idea of the reality of the practice of applying Laing’s thought, although Laing himself barely figures. So much love and so much pain camouflaged by so much inability to communicate, all of us as lonely as the 52Hz Whale. You can read more here.

I would recommend Asylum and All Divided Selves to anyone interested in the subject. Mad to be Normal can be relegated to a hungover sunday with a cold when you can’t find anything better to watch.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


The adult Mayfly lives for one day. This is a memorial for common ephemera. Sign up to the weekly newsletter at