Film Review: ‘The Professor and the Madman’

Does this historical drama convey what it wants to, despite legal squabbles?
May 14, 2019 Updated: May 22, 2019

Many moviegoing folks, as well as the many film critics out there, have waxed melancholic about the lack of originality in modern filmmaking. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a passionate period project drawing considerable buzz and anticipation. The added fact that the stars are Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, two of Hollywood’s most notorious bad boys (sporting epic beards), is just the icing on the anticipatory cake.

“The Professor and the Madman” is about as unique as any film in recent memory. It tells of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Drawing inspiration from Simon Winchester’s 1998 book “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words,” Gibson has been shepherding this dream project for two entire decades.

The film opens in 1872, where William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) is in the throes of his undiagnosed schizophrenia. His mind is wracked with fits of paranoid delusions as he traverses the streets of London; apparently he believes that someone is out to assassinate him. In the course of his travels, he shoots and kills an innocent man who is out on a stroll with his wife, Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer, “The Tudors”).

Soon after committing the crime, the troubled American is captured by the local authorities and sent to the Broadmoor Hospital’s lunatic asylum. There, he proves to be a fascinating case for Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane, “Spy Games,” “Game of Thrones”).

Brayne discovers that Minor is no ordinary murderer, but rather a brilliant physician who is experiencing what today we would call bouts of extreme PTSD, due to his service in the American Civil War.

Sean Penn in union Civl War uniform
Sean Penn as a Civil War veteran in “The Professor and the Madman.” (Vertical Entertainment)

Meanwhile, an unusually gifted autodidact and linguist, James Murray (Mel Gibson), is on a mission to create the first-ever Oxford English Dictionary. Murray has recently moved his wife, Ada (Jennifer Ehle, “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Little Men”), to Oxford in order to accomplish this massive task, which he estimates could take anywhere from five to seven years to complete.

But when his assistants begin to fall behind in their work on the monumental task of assembling an entire dictionary from scratch, a general call is put out for contributors to mail-in word origins, and their definitions. That is when Minor begins to inundate Murray and his crew with thousands upon thousands of valuable entries, which help to develop the dictionary considerably.

Murray, a good-natured man, decides to thank his greatest contributor personally and so travels to see Minor, not knowing the doctor has been locked away in a mental institution for years. Regardless of this missed fact, Murray and Minor strike up an unexpected friendship that forms the backbone of the film.

19th century man with letter in library
Mel Gibson stars in the film “The Professor and the Madman.” (Vertical Entertainment)

From there, the two fascinating characters embark on an epistolary relationship that drives the dictionary project forward.

By comparison, a subplot involving Minor’s guilt over the impoverished widow of the man he murdered and his attempts to help her never sparks much in the way of emotional relevance.

natalie Dormer in Professor and Madman
Natalie Dormer as a widow in “The Professor and the Madman.” (Vertical Entertainment)

The Film’s Quality

Actors Gibson and Penn are in fine form here and keenly dramatize an unlikely partnership based on perseverance and a love of words and language.

Penn falls into his role as Minor in a convincing manner. We really get to see a window into mental illness as his character deals with graphic flashbacks that detail the horrors of war. Several memorable scenes involve his connection with a guard at the mental facility. Muncie (Eddie Marsan, “Deadpool 2,” “Whiteboy Rick”) eventually discovers Minor’s capacity for compassion.

Meanwhile, Gibson completely disappears into his portrayal as Murray, a brilliant man obsessed with the most important project of his life. Indeed, as the character disappears into his work, conflicts arise with his wife, Ada. But as the project takes him over and consumes all of his time, she eventually lets James go and has to raise their children, for the most part, on her own.

Overall, the production looks good and seems to be a sincere dramatization of an important period in language history. However, there are tonal missteps here and there and a subtle lack of overall continuity.

These slight detriments are probably due to the much-publicized clashes that Gibson and the film’s co-writer and director Farhad Safinia (“Apocalypto”) had with Voltage Pictures.

Behind the Scenes

Gibson almost stopped “The Professor and the Madman” from being released at all. The famous Aussie star, under his Icon Productions banner, had been in a protracted legal squabble (until just recently) with Voltage over such things as where the film scenes were to be shot.

While Gibson and Safinia wanted to lend authenticity to the production by filming in Oxford, Voltage apparently decided that it was over budget as it was, and wanted to shoot in more fiscal-friendly locations around Trinity College in Dublin.

Eventually, Gibson and Safinia walked off of the project. As a result, director P.B. Sherman was invented as the film’s director and this fictive person also took a co-writing credit, along with Todd Komarnicki (who, confusingly, actually exists).

sean Penn as old William Chester Minor
Sean Penn (R) as William Chester Minor near the end of his life. (Vertical Entertainment)

For many people, the legal battles just made them want to see the film that much more. Part of the allure of watching the final product was to see if it actually came together.

In that regard, while “The Professor and the Madman” may have a few tonal hick-ups, overall, it’s an important film that is both educational and well-crafted.

‘The Professor and the Madman’
Director: Farhad Safinia
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Mel Gibson, Stephen Dillane
Rated: NR
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Release Date: May 10
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane

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