The Professor and the Madman

Edition 28 June 2019, by James Luxford

Mel Gibson’s passion project comes to cinemas under a cloud of controversy. Producer/star Gibson, along with director Farhad Safinia, left the project after a dispute with the distributors ended with them being denied final cut approval. In a statement, Gibson called the studio’s version a ‘bitter disappointment’ while Safinia was credited under a pseudonym. So, is the final product a disaster? Gibson stars as James Murray, the man charged with creating the Oxford English Dictionary. Faced with chronicling every word in the English language, Murray’s impossible task is sped up by Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), a mentally troubled prisoner whose brilliant mind is crippled by paranoia.

Filmed at gorgeous locations, the film has the look of a period classic. The importance of creating the dictionary, a book many of us take for granted, is beautifully emphasised in a well written, if overly intricate script. Well aware that a story about the making of a dictionary may not be enough to sustain two hours, the film also delves into the lives of the two men in question – Murray battles the establishment, who view him as an eccentric and an outsider; while Minor battles the ghosts of his past, particularly his guilt in murdering an innocent man. There’s a lot going on, which is the film’s fatal flaw. Wordy scenes test even the most patient of viewers, making the runtime drag. There are also superfluous subolots, such as Laurence Fox’s villain, an academic who seems determined to block Murray’s work at all costs (it’s never clear why, exactly). Equally shakey is the budding romance between Minor and the widow of the man he killed, with Natalie Dormer adopting a painful cockney accent as she tries to keep up with her Oscar winning colleague.

Luckily, the casting of Gibson and Penn make the effort worthwhile. While he is a controversial character off-screen, on it he never lost his star quality and makes a potentially dull role riveting. Penn has the meatier part, and throws himself head first into the shoes of a man unravelling. Almost all the film’s high points come when the two men are on screen together, clearly enjoying every moment of their scenes. For all its off-screen trauma, The Professor And The Madman is a graceful and interesting drama let down by a glacial pace and needless subplots. In the hands of the original creatives, it may have been something special.