Movie review / ‘The Professor and the Madman’ (M)

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Mel Gibson, left, and Sean Penn in “The Professor and the Madman”.

“The Professor and the Madman” (M)

“THE Professor and the Madman” is set in Oxford University in 1884, when Professor of Letters, James Murray (Mel Gibson) asked people to help in the research project that led to publication of the first edition in its present form of “A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society”.

The heirs of that project are alive and active to this day.

Does compiling a massive dictionary strike you as not the most exciting theme for a 125-minute-movie? If you don’t see it, you can’t know what you’re missing. 

Based on a book by Simon Winchester, ”The Professor and the Madman” offers filmgoers conflict, passion, love, murder, an improbable friendship, a core theme about something that’s now a commonplace that we take for granted and, alas, abuse dreadfully particularly in the electronic media which should know better. 

Its critical reception has ranged from great to fiasco. I found it emotionally moving despite a few anachronisms that don’t detract from the narrative. 

The madman was an American, Dr William Minor, who’d served as a military surgeon in the Civil War. The film starts with his commitment to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after murdering a workman. The screenplay by Iranian-born director Farhad Safinia (billed as PB Shemran for legal reasons arising from the film’s long and unhappy genesis) applies the same weight to Minor as to James Murray. As well it might, for Sean Penn’s portrayal of Minor’s mental health issue is brilliant, sympathetic and intensely moving.

Throughout the academic conflict attending Murray’s project, two women played significant roles. As Ada Murray, Jennifer Ehle is luminously lovely. Natalie Dormer plays Eliza Merrett, the widow of the murdered man who not only came to forgive Minor but also to visit him and bring him books.  

Knowing about what may have been the world’s first appeal for crowdfunding led Broadmoor keeper Mr Muncie (Eddie Marsan) to connect Minor’s passion for books with Murray’s need for readers to send him information about new words. The rest is philological history. And a rewarding experience for people who like movies that engage their brains and their hearts.


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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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