The Professor and the Madman is based on Simon Winchester’s fascinating bestseller The Surgeon of Crowthorne, whose screen rights were bought by Mel Gibson’s production company twenty years ago. It is a biographical story centered on an unusual relationship between two people who participated in writing the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Compilation of the aforementioned dictionary began in 1857, and that undertaking was considered both revolutionary and very ambitious. Besides the preservation of the language, the main reason was that the dictionary would be an important factor in the spread of Anglicism among the colonies. After several years of failed attempts, Professor James Murray (Gibson), who has no formal education but is a great expert in his profession, gets the job. The professor is aware that this undertaking requires almost a century to complete, so he comes up with the idea that each of the citizens should supply the dictionary with some of their own expressions.
On the other side is Dr. William Chester Minor (Sean Penn), a retired captain-surgeon and veteran of the American Civil War, who kills an innocent man in a fit of madness. He ends up in an insane asylum, where his condition is improved by painting and books, and he finds true purpose in the request of Professor James. In the following period, William contributed to the compilation of the dictionary with over ten thousand words with quotations.
Set in the Victorian era, The Professor and the Madman has protagonists who are brilliant minds. While one of them is unrecognized among Oxford snobs, the other has lost touch with reality in the horrors of war. Compiling the dictionary will bring them together in a way no one expected, and their complex relationship becomes both productive and tragic. William is plagued by hallucinations and paranoid delusions, and James’ appeal for public help to find the words becomes his obsession.
In addition to presenting James’ problems he faces while compiling the dictionary, the script deals a lot with William. Over the course of the film, he confronts his own guilt, reconciles with the widow (Natalie Dormer) of the man he killed, and fights a previously lost battle with his sanity. The humiliations he endures are one of the harder parts to watch – it’s really hard to watch a man descend further and further into darkness, as we’re powerless to do anything about it, just like Professor James himself.
Themes of forgiveness, punishment and redemption pervade the script. First of all, it refers to the widow, who finds a way to forgive the captain, and there is also James’s wife (Jennifer Ehle), whose initial anger turns to pity. The characters are religious and suggest that we turn to God to find forgiveness. What I didn’t like was the fact that the character of Professor James remained interesting only on paper, especially when compared to the character of Doctor William. Also, I have to state that the story didn’t really manage to take us through time, because so many years have passed, and the action seems to take place day by day.
The film was realized with maximum quality, and I am especially referring to the scenography, costumes and musical sections rich in violin. I’m sorry that Mel Gibson didn’t get his hands on the director’s job, because I believe that everything would have come alive with his guidance. Farhad Safini, under the pseudonym PB Shemran, who worked on the film Apocalypto and the series Boss, was signed as director and co-writer.
With his presentation of an obsessive, schizophrenic man, Sean Penn proves once again that he is an amazing actor. Mel Gibson is back in character with a Scottish accent, this time as a self-taught linguist, who vows to do what the rest of the learned world has failed to do for so many years. The supporting roles feature a plethora of excellent character actors including Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane and Eddie Marsan.