Directed by: P.B. Shemran
Premise: Based on true events. In the 1870s, professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is recruited to compile all the words in the English language and create the Oxford English Dictionary. He is assisted by W. C. Minor (Sean Penn), a medical doctor who is incarcerated in an asylum.
What Works: The subject of The Professor and the Madman is literary and not inherently cinematic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have turned this material into a dramatic and compelling movie. That’s mostly accomplished by focusing on the relationships between the characters and casting actors to their strengths. The Professor and the Madman is led by Mel Gibson as professor James Murray, a philologist who was tasked by Oxford University with compiling a comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Gibson has a knack for playing likable characters with democratic appeal. As portrayed in this film, Murray was family man and as an academic he was mostly self-taught. The dictionary is his passion project but despite his enthusiasm and demonstrated expertise Murray is looked down upon by the aristocratic Oxford faculty who second guess and undermine his efforts. Gibson and the filmmakers get the viewer to care about this academic endeavor because we want to see Murray succeed. Sean Penn is cast as W. C. Minor, a well-read medical doctor with schizophrenia who is incarcerated after murdering a stranger while suffering a paranoid delusion. Penn specializes in playing tortured souls and his character alternates between intellectual lucidity and incoherent madness. The film reveals the source of Minor’s madness and while sober he attempts to make amends for what he’s done by financially supporting the widow of the man he murdered. The lives of these two men become intertwined as Minor helps the professor by cataloguing thousands of words and Murray becomes an advocate for the mental patient. The filmmakers combine these men’s stories in ways that play to the audience’s sympathies, creating a compelling drama.
What Doesn’t: The Professor and the Madman is a conventionally told story. It relies upon standard dramatic filmmaking and storytelling appeals and it isn’t especially challenging. The one aspect of the film’s conservatism that’s a bit troubling is its limited view of womanhood. The female characters are restricted to narrow functions of the men’s stories. The widow played by Natalie Dormer gets something to do and her character learns to forgive Penn’s character for what he’s done. But the widow is mostly just a vehicle for his redemption. The wife of Professor Murray, played by Jennifer Ehle, has much less to do. The film hints of some tension in the marriage because the husband is favored by the children and the mother, as primary caregiver, is also the disciplinarian. Not much gets made of this and Ehle’s character mostly stands by her man throughout the movie.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: The Professor and the Madman remains within a conventional style of filmmaking but it does that quite well. The film utilizes a pair of strong performances and reliable storytelling conventions to tell a satisfying historical drama.
Episode: #779 (December 8, 2019)