'The Professor and the Madman': Film Review

Courtesy Golden Scene
Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in 'The Professor and the Madman.'
A copy of the OED is required to describe this.

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn topline the long-awaited and much-litigated Oxford dictionary biopic, co-starring Natalie Dormer and Steve Coogan.

Who’s the professor and who’s the madman? It doesn’t really matter in P.B. Shemran's — actually writer-director Farhad Safinia's — The Professor and the Madman, the long-delayed Mel Gibson passion project about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the unlikely friendship that evolved between a Scottish autodidact and a schizophrenic, PTSD-suffering American war veteran.

After years of litigation and a goodly amount of mud-slinging among producers and directors, The Professor and the Madman is finally finding a limited release in secondary territories and heading to streaming, which is probably the best place for it considering the film’s difficult subject matter; a two-hour period piece about writing a dictionary seems an odd subject for the big screen, and indeed The Professor and the Madman is already in the running for oddest movie of 2019.

The long production process stalled when Gibson’s Icon Productions and Voltage Pictures sued and countersued each other 2017 in a dispute over creative decision-making and accusations of hijacking the film. The legal wrangling finally ended when a settlement was reached in April 2019. If that weren’t enough, Safinia — writer-producer on Kelsey Grammer’s Starz series Boss and co-writer on Gibson’s Apocalypto — lost a summary judgment from a California judge in March over what would have been his feature directorial debut.

Dictionary founder Frederick Furnivall (Steve Coogan) advocates that James Murray (Gibson), a self-educated Scottish linguist and scholar, take over the editorship of the university’s languishing white whale. Oxford’s elitist brain trust buckles under Furnivall’s barrage of 50-cent words and almost immediately starts plotting Murray’s removal. Though Murray ensures his publisher an OED can be completed in seven years (it took over 40, and only the third edition is currently being compiled), he and his assistants quickly fall behind schedule and he comes up with a radical plan to get the project back on track: dictionary by democracy. Murray sends out a public call to verbose arms, asking the public for input on which words they use, and how and where they came from.

While Murray is wrestling with his task in Oxford, Yale-trained Civil War doctor William Chester Minor (an absolutely bonkers Sean Penn) has been tried for killing a man he thought was chasing him and is sent to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. There he’s put under the care of Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane), an experimentalist with some questionable yet wholly 19th century ideas of what mental health care should entail.

Earning privileges after saving a young guard’s life, an act witnessed by kindly jailer Muncie (Eddie Marsan), Minor finds one of Murray’s word requests and soon becomes the obsessed researcher the project needs. The two men become friends. When the news press catches wind that one of the dictionary’s contributors is a murderous lunatic, Oxford University Press delegates Philip Lyttelton Gell (Laurence Fox) and Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) start twirling their mustaches even harder and threaten to remove Murray from his life’s work.

Even without what is surely a great deal of dramatic license, The Professor and the Madman has the makings of a compelling story about an unfathomable task. Anyone who’s ever looked inside the OED will realize just how monumental the job was. In fairness, the film isn't outright bad, or even unwatchable, but it is plagued by multiple personalities of its own, and has no clear idea of what it wants to be; it feels like a film whose director was removed from the picture at some point. It starts as a lush period drama about great men taking on a tremendous task that will change the world (at times it recalls A Dangerous Method or The Imitation Game), then it pivots into medical thriller territory, chronicling Murray’s attempts to stop the abuse of Minor at Broadmoor.

Then of course there’s a whisper of forbidden romance between Minor and Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer), the widow of the man he killed. Dormer's role is ludicrous, an obvious attempt to give the women (there are two) something to do. She fares better than the unfortunate, wasted Jennifer Ehle as Murray's wife, Ada, who flip-flops more than your average politician on any given Tuesday.

Shot in Dublin, with Trinity College doubling for Oxford (which was the source of some of the litigation), the film certainly has the technical foundations to be engaging, if not great. Production designer Tom Conroy and costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh do great work, and Kasper Tuxen’s cinematography gracefully captures the hallowed halls of higher learning. But the editing (by Dino Jonsater) often makes the narrative feel illogical, and the score (by the usually reliable Bear McCreary) draws attention to the Big Moments, just in case we missed them. Ironically, for a movie about words, the dialogue sparks to life only on rare occasion. (Coogan seems to be having the most fun delivering his flowery takedowns of the Oxford delegates.)

The film’s only real draws are Gibson and Penn, who come at the material from opposite ends of the acting philosophy spectrum. Gibson turns in another understated, late-career performance that sees him leaning into his age. His Murray is dignified and driven, never showing it but always feeling he has something to prove among PhDs. Penn, on the other hand, is channeling Nicolas Cage at his most manic, but without the self-aware sense of purpose — or fun, depending on context — that goes with that, and his Rasputin-lite performance fizzles into incoherent drivel too often to be considered nuanced. It's simply confounding, much like the rest of the movie.

Production company: Voltage Pictures, Fabrica de Cine
U.S. distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane, Ioan Gruffudd, Jeremy Irvine, David O’Hara, Laurence Fox, Anthony Andrews
Director: P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia)
Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki, P.B. Shemran
Based on the book
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Producer: Nicholas Chartier, Gaston Pavlovich
Executive producer: Dominic Rustam, Zev Foreman, Peter McAleese, Tyler Zacharia, Manu Gargi
Director of photography: Kasper Tuxen
Production designer: Tom Conroy
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Music: Bear McCreary
Casting: Dan Hubbard
World sales: Voltage Pictures

124 minutes