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.