Review: The Professor and the Madman

25 February 2020

In a constantly changing linguistic and cultural landscape Mel Gibson’s passion project based on the unique history of the Oxford English Dictionary, should have had no trouble capturing the modern zeitgeist. Unfortunately, in a production marred by chaos, lawsuits and general disfunction, The Professor and the Madman is a film left feeling hollow and unfinished. While the film has triumphant moments, particularly in the powerful performances of its two leads, Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, the viewer is left waiting for the premise to transform into more than merely an empty stage for its leads, and to deal with the complexity and ephemeral nature of the English language. 

Based on the 1998 Simon Winchester novel of the same name and directed by Farhad Safinia, the film introduces the dual character narratives of James Murray (Mel Gibson), a brilliant and enigmatic Scottish polylingual, and William Chester Minor (Sean Penn), a paranoid former doctor of the American civil war. 

Murray has been drafted to take over the editorship of the flailing Oxford English Dictionary, a task which has proved an impossible feat for the previous editors. He moves himself, his wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) and their children to Oxford, hires research assistants, builds a scriptorium in his backyard and begins the Herculean task of charting the history of every word in the English language. Finding himself lost in his task, Murray devises a crowd-sourcing type plan where English speakers from every corner of the world can submit words, their definitions and origins for publication. 

Concurrently, Penn’s Dr. Minor has been sentenced to treatment at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, after murdering an innocent man in a fit of delusional paranoia and being declared criminally insane. As Minor’s madness is increasingly understood by the asylum’s superintendent (Brendan Patricks) as rooted in trauma from his experiences in the civil war, his brilliant mind and the consuming guilt he feels for his crime are uncovered. Minor responds to Murray’s call for contributions and quickly becomes an invaluable asset to Murray and his project. Eventually, a deep friendship forms between the two men which is explored through the lenses of societal anxieties around mental illness, concepts of guilt and redemption and genius. 

For such an intriguing premise, The Professor and the Madman’s key fault lies in its inability to address its subject matter in a meaningful way. While the film looks at the changing nature of language, it fails to explore this in any unique or modern way. As period dramas experience something of a renaissance, the film falls short due to its inability to add new commentary, ask unique questions or bring a modern sensibility to the subject matter. While there is vague reference made to shifting lexicons across English speaking international territories and a brief scene that mentions it, this is where the film’s engagement with the bones of its subject matter ends… much to its detriment. 

To compound this more fundamental issue, the film cannot seem to escape the chaos of its production which continually jolts the viewer out of the story. There are the more cringe-worthy moments such as a scene supposedly set in Oxford being shot in the instantly recognisable library of Trinity College, Dublin. And excluding the character of Mrs. Merrett (Natalie Dormer), the widower of Minor’s victim whose character and performance do bring depth to the ensemble, the secondary characters and subplots lack cohesion or depth. For instance, Murray’s wife Ada spends the film largely unhappy and brooding at the state of her new life until the final act where with nothing to inspire such a change, she becomes Murray’s bedrock of support. Similarly, Murray’s Oxford colleagues are largely one-dimensional and uninspired. And despite Penn and Dormer’s performances, the inclusion of the love narrative between Mrs. Merrett and Dr. Minor feels forced and unconvincing. 

Despite its deficiencies, where The Professor and the Madman works is in the performance of its leads, Gibson and Penn, particularly in the evolving relationship between the two men. Gibson’s Murray walks the subtle line of the hardened and determined academic without seeming a cold or distant caricature of himself. His affection for his wife and children, as well as the guilt he feels for emotionally neglecting them for his work is beautifully performed and emphasised in the distant-feeling scene composition, where Murray’s character is often shown as removed or concealed from his family’s lives. 

Contrastingly, Penn’s Minor is exaggerated and emphatic in his portrayal of trauma and guilt. This style works well both in contrast to Gibson’s restraint, the narrative context of a suite of increasingly barbaric psychiatric treatments he is subjected to, and the social stigma that surrounds him and his work. 

As the film progresses, the relationship between the two men develops beyond a mutual respect for the other’s intellectual ambition, into a deep friendship and trust. Here Safinia’s directorial style is well suited to emphasise this affection with tight, intimate shots that centre the actors faces and physical closeness in the scenes. The scenes between them are well-paced, revelling in the chemistry between the two actors. The film succeeds in portraying a true tenderness in the relationship between Murray and Minor.

On paper, The Professor and the Madman should work as an intriguing look at how the Oxford English Dictionary came into being.  Unfortunately, the accomplished performances of the two leads and interesting directorial style couldn’t distract from the fundamental issue of a film that fails in any real way to interact with its subject matter.

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