The Professor and the Madman review by Bobby Blakey
Over the last couple of years Mel Gibson has been popping back up in varying projects including Dragged Across Concrete, Force of Nature and more recently Fatman. One of his recent releases The Professor and the Madman alongside Sean Penn is actually a couple of years old but due to some various issues behind the scenes the release got held up. The film features a great cast including Eddie Marsan, Natalie Dormer, Steve Coogan and Ioan Gruffudd, but does it do justice to this important story in history or will it be too hard to define?
The Professor and the Madman follows the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary that began in 1857 and was one of the most ambitious, and revolutionary projects ever undertaken. Professor James Murray took on the challenge of creating the most comprehensive dictionary ever compiled, but knew that it would take him and his team over a century to compile all known definitions. However, by “crowd sourcing” the work, that is, by enlisting definitions from people all over the world, the dictionary could be compiled in mere decades. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand words. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was a convicted murderer and being held at an asylum for the criminally insane.
I have never read the book this film is based on and didn’t know much about the true life story, but I had seen this trailer some time ago and it looked engaging. It no doubt comes as no surprise that it is a slow paced movie with little excitement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. The film is engaging throughout if you just sit down and let the whole thing sink in. There is essentially two stories playing out simultaneously with Penn as Dr. W.C. Minor’s struggle with mental illness and Gibson’s Professor Murray working on the Oxford Dictionary. Their journeys are so different but collide nonetheless to make history.
Both Gibson and Penn both give powerful performances here. Both are dealing with obsession with Gibson laser focused on his task and it consuming his life. He brings a powerful dedication to the role that he is clearly passionate about and it shines through. Penn has the heavier lifting of the two dealing with mental issues and lays it all out there in yet another awesome display of talent. Both men bring their A game to the film that doesn’t always deliver in execution but always does in performances across the board.
If I had any issues it would the pacing with some things feeling rushed. I assume a lot of this had to do with the fact that there was script changes and interference in the final film that was different than what Gibson and director Farhad Safinia listed on the film under pseudonym P.B. Shemran had originally scripted and planned out in the 20 years they fought to get it made. I really enjoyed the film that was delivered, but imagine whatever was left out would have no doubt made it all the better. I found it to be a powerful film in execution, performances and culture despite minor issues and glad I unexpectedly found it now on Netflix.