The Professor and the Madman

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Professor and the Madman
dir PB Shemran
scr Todd Komarnicki, PB Shemran
prd Nicolas Chartier, Gaston Pavlovich
with Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane, Ioan Gruffudd, Jeremy Irvine, Laurence Fox, Anthony Andrews, David O'Hara
release US 10.May.19
19/Ireland Voltage 2h04

dormer marsan ehle

gibson and penn
This finely produced period drama recounts the astonishing story of the men who developed the first Oxford English Dictionary, the first exhaustive compendium of the language. Even with the important kick of this story, the film's scope feels a bit overambitious. Still, it's finely directed (largely by the uncredited Farhad Safinia), the script is packed with earthy realism, and the powerhouse cast is great.
In 1870s London, self-taught Scottish linguist James Murray (Gibson) is appointed to compile the first comprehensive English dictionary. Some Oxford dons want it limited and proscriptive, others prefer it open and inclusive, appreciating James' radical approach. It's a massive task, so James turns to the public for help supplying words, including their origins and early usage. His most significant and prolific contributor is American doctor William Minor (Penn), who helps James from his cell at Broadmoor asylum, where he's locked up for murder after being traumatised by experiences in the US Civil War.
The job Murray and his team took on was overwhelming, tracing the evolution of meaning of every single word in a language that's still collecting them. These scenes are intercut with Minor's unhinged breakdowns in Broadmoor, mingled with flashbacks to his military service. There's a sense that these two men have an impact on each other, but the film isn't that obvious. It's also shot with a sense of intensity, using earthy dialog and modern-style camerawork to intriguingly undermine the period tone.

Gibson has a solid presence with a nice hint of lively wit, while the notably astonishing Penn channels Minor's madness and genius in intriguing parallel. They're surrounded by expert supporting actors who know how to remain in the background. Women only feature in irrelevant but context-building scenes, namely Ehle as Murray's patient, helpful wife and Dormer as a mother of six children, widowed by Minor and then assisted by him with the help of a guard (Marsan). Her story takes some intriguing twists of its own.

The narrative takes all kinds of offbeat turns, some of which are rather shocking. Minor's mental condition is clearly beyond the medical understanding of the day, so his treatment and behaviour are often horrific. But his contribution to Murray's dictionary is indispensable, especially in the face of resistance from a couple of simplistically villainous Oxford snobs. Even so, this is an important and inspiring account of events that changed the course of history, driven by people who refused to follow pointless rules.

cert 15 themes, violence, language 6.May.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall