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The Professor and the Madman 2019 ****

It’s some time since The Professor and the Madman filmed in Dublin; 2016 to be exact. Reviewing it on Amazon Prime last night was the first legal route to assessing the film, although it seems to have been around for years; it was leaked illegally long before a perfunctory set of tombstone reviews in the trades detailing post-production woes. A mooted re-shoot which didn’t happen seems to have led all concerned to write off the result; a real shame, because there’s an interesting movie here.

Mel Gibson’s multiple swan-dives from grace are well-documented elsewhere; although madness has provided signature roles in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, he’s the professor here, the erudite Scot James Murray, giving him the chance to demonstrate the mastery of the Scottish accent that featured in Braveheart. Murray was entrusted with a huge responsibility; that of compiling the Oxford English dictionary, and the source material, Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, makes no bones about what a mammoth undertaking such an enterprise would be.

The Madman is Sean Penn as William Chester Minor, a Civil War veteran introduced gunning down an innocent man in the street, and jailed for insanity with a mob baying for his blood. From jail, Minor learns of Murray’s task, and putting his mind to work, begins to send contributions to the compilation of the dictionary, much to Murray’s delight. But those funding the OED are less than thrilled to find out the source of the contributions, and seek to remove Murray from his post.

Both Gibson and Penn are big stars, serious actors and benighted public figures who have learned the hard way how fickle the public can be; working with his Apocalypto scribe Farhad Safina, who also directs, Gibson makes a strong case for the two men as geniuses destabilised by the insanity of the world around them. The Herculean task of compiling the dictionary was not completed in the lifetime of either man, but their contribution to our understanding of the language that shapes most of our lives is estimable.

The Professor and the Madman is the kind of prestige picture that, for once, is yolked to an appropriate subject. It feels unfinished, perhaps; while certain scenes pop, not least as Minor navigates the charnel house of the asylum, the narrative through-line needs finer tuning than this. But this is an intellectual film, dealing with two remarkable minds, and the result is never boring. Those seeking a break from lowest-common denominator film-making will appreciate the erudite tone and the determination to tell a story which challenges our closeted notions of social respectability.

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  1. Great review. It seems like ages ago that I read the news that Penn and Gibson are working on a film that traces the compiling of the Oxford Dictionary and now we have the result. Delays is never a good sign for a film and I guess that showed in this film.

  2. Hey Diana, for a film that everyone involved seemed to disown, and which has been kicked around the block and ignored, it’s worth a look. A shame that a project which such lofty, literate ideas should have crashed and burned, but there’s points of real interest. Thanks for reading!

  3. This delay reminds me of so many other movies that got “delayed” for a number of reasons – such as Weinstein association, obviously, but also just editing – (Tulip Fever (2017), The Current War (2017/2019)) they had such good potential, but lost the fight sometimes through no fault of their story or actors – a pity.

  4. All these movies that I’d never heard of. This one and The Iron Mask both have what would have been considered A-list (that is, big opening) talent a few years ago. But I didn’t know anything about them until I saw your posts.

    I don’t know if this is because I’m just getting old and out of touch (I still mainly watch movies on DVD), or if it’s the stars that are fading.

  5. Both these films are flawed. but in the current climate, I’ve got a bent towards highlighting work featuring major talents that, for one reason or another, has gone unseen; the fun of finding a diamond in the rough. And streaming is the safety net that offers even the most ignored film one shot at salvation. Thanks for the comment, I’m not saying either of these films are great, but they’re both worth a look as opposed to some of the obvious choices.

  6. Mel Gibson shot himself in the foot with his offscreen behavior (a protracted legal battle that wasn’t strictly necessary), as he tends to these days. He wasn’t half bad in this film, but made sure to cast a shadow over his own performance.

  7. Wow. Intriguing review. 4 years in limbo. That’s not counting its pre-production. I just remember Penn, like Gibson, sewing bad blood with his politics, going to Iran, etc. I’d imagine them both in a film is a tough marketing pitch.

    I need to watch this. So curious.

  8. Free version on Prime in the UK. Not awful at all, and quite unique. And yes, both men have reputations, but things can’t change if we can’t actually see their work. Keen to hear other opinions, the Variety review is quite odd to read…

  9. Well, the idea, the story is quite unique. I am certainly intriqued. It goes for $2.99 as VOD, so I am going to check it out. It’s not carried as PPV on cable in the states.

  10. I didn’t realize this movie existed. I read both Simon Winchester’s books (The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Mad Man) and thought they were truly interesting. I’m looking forward to this film, although I won’t go in with super high expectations.

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