Writer: Todd Komarnicki and P.B. Shemran
Director: P. B. Shemran
Skipping a cinema release in the UK, Mel Gibson’s new film about the first Oxford English Dictionary has, without much ceremony, appeared on Amazon Prime. Gibson has already distanced himself from the film, but he’s much better than you’d imagine. It’s Sean Penn – or the writing of his character, at least –that is the problem.
The Professor and the Madman has been a long time coming with filming starting in 2016. Since then, the film has spent more time in courtrooms than it has in cinemas. Director Farhad Safinia – P. B. Shemran is a pseudonym – was fired by Voltage Pictures after he asked for an extra five days to film at Oxford University, a request with a $2.5 million price tag. A court ruled that Safinia didn’t have the rights to the film, and couldn’t stop its release. Gibson has called the film a ‘bitter disappointment’ and neither he nor Safinia promoted the film.
Gibson has also said that the film was never meant to a commercial enterprise, but a way to bring the story, based on Simon Winchester’s book The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, to a larger audience. For a story about words, it translates surprisingly well to the screen, helped by the Oxford location and the myriad of British talent on hand. Steve Coogan, Jennifer Ehle, Ioan Grufford, Stephen Dillane, Anthony Andrews and even cause célèbre Laurence Fox all make an appearance.
Gibson is James Murray, a Scottish teacher and autodidact who in 1879 applies to the Oxford University Press to be the editor of the enormous dictionary it is planning of every word in the English language along with its etymology. Of course, the delegates, privileged and snobbish, don’t like him, but he impresses some of them enough with his knowledge of foreign languages that he gets the job. But even with a team of assistants, the task is harder than he thought, and they can’t seem to get past the word ‘art’.
This is where Sean Penn comes in. He plays American William Chester Minor locked up in Broadmoor after shooting dead a man in London. A veteran of the American Civil War Minor’s crime is deemed to have been caused by insanity, but he enjoys many freedoms in the asylum. When he hears that Murray is advertising for volunteers to help trace the etymologies of words, he whips into action, and his rather large cell is soon bedecked with books.
Penn’s madness is fairy unconvincing and at times he’s inaudible. His charm which leads his gaolers to care for him, his victim’s widow to fall in love with him, and Gibson to call him his brother is lost on the audience, and when Gibson and Penn meet for the first time, it’s in a dazzle of silver beards. Gibson has the more sympathetic part and a gentle Scottish brogue, and his story of compiling the first fascicle of the dictionary has a good deal more drama than the madness back at Broadmoor.
The snipings of the delegates of the Oxford University Press are the best things about the film with Fox and Andrews in great form as they try to undermine Murray’s authority in finding words that he’s missed. Coogan is consistent as ever in a role that is quite minor, and Ehle, playing Murray’s wife, has very little to get her teeth into. The Oxford scenes are done so well that you almost wish that Safinia had been granted those five extra days to film the city’s dreaming spires.
The result isn’t the disaster that Gibson has suggested it is, but The Professor and the Madman perhaps suits the small screen better than the big one, and there are the subtitles at hand for Penn’s quieter mumbles. It must be a sigh of relief for all involved that this film won’t be found in the dictionary under T, as an example of a turkey.
Available on Amazon Prime