Defining Redemption (Film Review: “The Professor and the Madman”)

Sean Penn and Mel Gibson shine in the engrossing and ultimately heartbreaking true story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

SnapShot Plot

The Professor and the Madman – apart from being an engrossing historical period piece of intense interest to lovers of language – may also be seen as a career reclamation of sorts for its co-stars Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, working together for the first time.

The movie tells the story of the Sisyphean ordeal taken on by the Oxford University Press to – in the late 19th Century – create the definitive English language dictionary to be the standard-bearer of the world. Not only would the Oxford English Dictionary include every English word known to Man, but it would also source each word to its historical etymological roots, with references to usage as well as literary and everyday quotations sources.

Professor James Murray, a self-taught Scottish polyglot, played magnificently by Mel Gibson, is brought in by his friend and admirer, Frederick James Furnivall (played by Steve Coogan) to present his CV to the stuffed shirts at Oxford. Try as they might, Murray’s utter linguistic brilliance cannot be denied and he is begrudgingly awarded the job of assembling the mammoth book.

He is assigned a mere skeleton crew of scholarly aides and moves his entire boisterous family to England. Murray’s loving and patient wife Ada, brilliant in her own right and played beautifully by the under-utilized actress Jennifer Ehle, is very much her husband’s rock; it is her character arc that demonstrates the poignant moral question at the center of the story.

The moral conundrum revolves around the tortured yet equally brilliant character of Dr. William Chester Minor, a surgeon in the American Civil War whose harrowing experiences have left him a shattered and paranoid man. In an altered state of delirium, Dr. Minor commits an atrocity, for which he is very publicly ‘brought to justice.’ Sean Penn’s performance as Dr. Minor is nothing short of spectacular, reminding us of all the roles this actor has practically evaporated into and of how much he’s been missed in front of the camera.

When Professor Murray and his team are nearly defeated by their Herculean task, with no conceivable avenue to success, a guardian angel comes to them in the form of Dr. Minor, whose seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of language proves the channel by which their entire project is saved. When Murray learns of the identity of his contributor, he visits him in the psychiatric hospital that has effectively become Minor’s home. A deep bond forms between the two men as each realizes the profound dignity – and salvation really – at the heart of their shared passion for the written word.

Even more profound is the relationship between Dr. Minor and a woman whose life his sickness has impacted in the most tragic of ways. Played with an intimate nuance by Natalie Dormer, the course of this dynamic is unforeseen, miraculous even, and ultimately heart-rending. Questions of guilt, punishment, redemption and salvation loom large over this historically based story, with Language at the core.

Parting Shot

Based on the book, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” by Simon Winchester, the film’s original director, Farhad Safinia shared writing credits with none other than the great John Boorman, whose notable career will forever be etched in gold with 1972’s Deliverance and 1981’s Excalibur.

But the backstory on The Professor and the Madman’s production is a whole other thing entirely. In 1999 (17 years before the actual production), Mel Gibson bought the rights to Winchester’s book. His production partner, Voltage Pictures wouldn’t allow filming on location in Oxford, England, opting instead for Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. A protracted legal battle ensued, ending in both Gibson and (then) director Safinia literally walking out on the film. Todd Komarnicki took over the project, after which Mel Gibson and his own production company took Voltage to court to stop the film from being released, claiming that without them the production had to stop; their suit was unsuccessful.

Somehow, miraculously, a quite cohesive film was produced, due no doubt to the lion’s portion being already ‘in the can’ before the legal troubles took place, which in fact delayed the movie’s release by three years. This may explain why The Professor and the Madman seems to have snuck up on a worldwide audience with very little fanfare, considering the international star status of its two leads. Mel Gibson in fact has refused to promote the movie. Sean Penn has followed his lead.

Mel Gibson is no stranger to controversy, and we may have been distracted by his public and private antics into forgetting what a fine actor and filmmaker he is. And Sean Penn, who basically ruled the acting world a few decades ago, seems to have instead devoted his life to his esteemed humanitarian projects. It’s wonderful to see these two shine in this production, despite the legal imbroglios of its inception.

The thing to remember is the human story about redemption, about genius and its close cousin, madness, and the perseverance of the human spirit. Whether one is credited in the masthead or not.

The Professor and the Madman is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer

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