(Spoiler: noun-A person or thing that spoils something) It’s a shame The Professor and the Madman was plagued with troubles during and after production. Mel Gibson even tried to block the movie from being released . A movie like this was never going to light the box office on fire. To be fair, historical dramas rarely do well at the box office. More often than not they have to contend with CGI blockbusters and Disney animated movies. Historical dramas are further doomed when, for one reason or another, they’re cast into VOD without ever given a chance in the theater and the stars don’t promote the movie. It’s a shame because The Professor and the Madman deserves to be seen by an audience.
The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is not a sexy topic. We never really think about the creation of the dictionary. We take the dictionary for granted.Today we spell a word and spellcheck tells us whether the word is spelled correctly. Finding the meaning of a word is as easy as a Google search. However, there was a time not too long ago you had to use a dictionary made of paper, bound between a cover, to find the meaning and spelling of a word. Some libraries had a huge dictionary in the center of the building. It was so huge and heavy librarians didn’t have to worry someone would run off with it.
Now stop for a moment and think about the time it took to create the Oxford English Dictionary (70 years according to the end credits), a dictionary that would include every known word at the time (1872). It was a huge, monumental task. James Murray (Mel Gibson) not only wanted to do what others had failed to do he campaigned for the job. And for his sins he was granted the job.
Gibson brings a certain vulnerability to the role of Murray. It’s a character we haven’t seen Gibson played in quite some time. One would have to go back as far as The Year of Living Dangerously, Mrs. Soffel, or maybe even Mad Max to find the vulnerability Gibson brings to the role of James Murray.
Murray is the professor in the title. He’s not the traditional academic the stuffy halls of Oxford were used to at the time. Even worse, he was Scottish. The English members of the Oxford board weren’t too happy with that fact either. Murray wasn’t going to back down though. Ada Murray (Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty), Murray’s wife, made him promise to see the project through to the end. The implication being Murray hadn’t always finished things he started.
Murray not only had his wife in his corner, but he also had Fredrick James Furnivall (Steve Coogan, The Trip) running interference between Murray and the stuffed shirts on Oxford’s board and the money men. Although there are not a lot of scenes with Gibson and Ehle and Gibson and Coogan the scenes we do get are some of the best in the movie. But it’s the story, and the scenes, between Gibson and Sean Penn that make the movie shine.
Sean Penn is Dr. William Chester Minor, the madman in the title. He’s imprisoned in Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane after killing a man during a psychotic break. Minor was a civil war vet and surgeon who saw and did some horrific things. Although the end credits say Minor was diagnosed with schizophrenia he could have easily been suffering from what we would call PTSD. In 1872 there were no words to describe what Minor was suffering from. It would be decades before the term “shell shock” would be used to describe the trauma soldiers suffered from after returning from war and years before schizophrenia would be diagnosed.
“Madman”may not be the correct, or even politically correct today, word to describe Minor. He’s clearly disturbed and has serious mental issues. “Madman” makes it sound as if there is no redemption possible for Minor which is the total opposite of what the movie is trying to say. Penn straddles the line of insanity and lucidity like a tightrope walker,
Penn’s portrayal of Minor is one of the best in his long career. Unfortunately, his role won’t be given any awards because of the already mentioned problems the movie faced after production completed. Penn not only perfectly captures the mania of Minor but the compassion as well.
It doesn’t take long to learn how Murray and Minor’s story lines converge. In an attempt to complete his dictionary in seven years Murray recruited the population of the English empire. He did this by giving letters to every book seller and newsstand explaining the nature of his quest. The proprietors then put this letter into books and newspapers. A book given to Minor by Mr. Muncie (Eddie Marsan, Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1974) as a thank you for saving a fellow guard’s life included this letter. Minor takes on the challenge with abandoned.
What can be expected when two polarizing figures appear on screen at the same time? The answer: pure brilliance. If Gibson clicked with Ehle and Coogan then there’s an undeniable chemistry between Gibson and Penn. Over the years of creating the dictionary Murray and Minor became friends. Murray, with the help of the wife of the man he killed, championed for Minor’s release. That friendship is very apparent in the interactions between Gibson and Penn. Neither performances feel forced or faked.
Although the movie is about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary there are themes that keep appearing through the film. Those themes are redemption and forgiveness. Minor seeks both for his murder of Eliza Merrett’s (Natalie Dormer, Game of Thrones) husband. Merrett, after a time, is willing to give both to him. Murray fights to get both for him from his peers on the Oxford board.
It’s been years since Mel Gibson’s interstate breakdown and his alleged abuse scandal. There are some people with no connection to Gibson whatsoever who won’t forgive him for his misdeeds. There’s a scene in The Professor and the Madman where Murray’s wife is furious her husband has befriended a murderer. Murray asks her why a badman can’t be redeemed? Isn’t that what we, Christians, pray for? Don’t we teach our children to forgive? Gibson, as Murray, was talking about Minor, but he could have easily been referring to himself.
The Professor and the Madman may not be everybody’s cup of Yorkshire Tea. With a cast that includes Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennier Ehle, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Dillane, and Steve Coogan it would be hard to argue the movie can’t be accessible to a larger audience. There’s even a brief Braveheart reunion when David O’Hara’s reporter tells Murrary he’s going to publish a story about Minor being a murderer. The Professor and the Madman is worth your time. You may even learn a thing or two about the dictionary.