In 1879 a self-educated professor by the name of James Murray (Mel Gibson) was tasked with compiling the New English Dictionary (later known as the Oxford English Dictionary), the most comprehensive document of the entire English language. With a small team of intellects at his side he embarked on a tireless odyssey, spanning a decade, to trace the origins of every single word. Help would come from the most unexpected of places: From within the walls of a lunatic asylum, where a murderous madman, William Chester Minor (Sean Penn), had submitted over 10,000 entries with absolute dexterity.
Minor was a former war surgeon and genius whose madness and delusion led him to murder an innocent man in cold blood. His and Murray’s story is fascinating and almost too incredible to be true, and with such complexities and intricacies at play, the adaptation of their endeavour, The Professor and the Madman, was always destined to be complicated.
There is also an underlying context to the film, which explains some of its shortcomings. Mel Gibson – who also served as producer – and director Farhad Safinia (co-writer of Gibson’s Apocalypto) were denied creative control by the film’s major production company, allegedly walked away from the production, and subsequently took legal action. They lost their suit and consequently distanced themselves from the film entirely. Safinia was eventually removed from the director credit and replaced with the name P.B. Shemran – who doesn’t exist.
The echo of the production’s trauma resonates throughout the film, rendering some of it clunky and graceless. And yet, by all accounts, the production boasts an impressive design with a high calibre of talent. This makes for a difficult analysis when the disunity is so obvious, yet the precise fallacies are hard to define.
Further research into these characters’ histories exposes much of the fabrication within the film, and upon learning the true details of their story I can’t help but wonder why the film (or more specifically the novel from which it is based) would deviate from what is already an incredible tale. In reality the two men referenced in the title communicated for over 25 years before ever meeting, and yet the film has them acquainted much sooner. The film also depicts a romantic relationship between the mentally ill Minor and the widow of his murder victim, which was not exactly the true nature of their relationship. And furthermore, one particularly tragic act of self-harm within the film has been critically altered to avoid a controversial motive.
Of course, generally I am not one to criticise cinematic liberties and I take no issue when films manifest false truths for the sake of storytelling. In this case, however, there is a definite sense of disunity from behind the scenes that reveals a genuine lack of cohesion. The narrative structure feels episodic when it ought to flow smoothly and the depiction of Minor’s mental illness is contrived and exaggerated. Again, a perfectly good story has been reduced to melodrama.
Mel Gibson gives a strong turn as the highly intelligent professor and family man, and his passion for the material manifests in a very sturdy performance. Sean Penn, on the other hand, is sorely miscast and offers a poorly rendered impression of insanity. His onscreen presence is cringe-worthy at times and lacks sincerity. Steve Coogan co-stars as a scholar and editor of the dictionary and delivers a serviceable performance, although his talent is lost amongst the overriding pathos. Natalie Dormer is a delight as the emotionally conflicted widow and gives her all, despite the forced narrative at which her character finds herself. Other players include Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle and Ioan Gruffudd, who offer little to the proceedings.
The true potential of The Professor and the Madman will never be known. Gibson and Safinia’s severe clash with studio Voltage Pictures resulted in them being unable to realise their original vision. What could have been an amazing film is ultimately full of disappointment. There’s no denying that the story is utterly unique; it’s worthy of a much more considered rendering than this. The hierarchy’s interference has tendered a very average film indeed.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘The Professor and the Madman’ will open in limited Australian release on February 20.