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THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN Is A Dramatic Retelling About The Men Behind The Oxford Dictionary4 min read

15 July 2019 3 min read


THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN Is A Dramatic Retelling About The Men Behind The Oxford Dictionary4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Professor and the Madman chronicles the making of the Oxford Dictionary through the lives of two of its earliest contributors — professor Sir James Murray, and doctor and war veteran W.C. Minor.

Director: P.B. Shemran

Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Stephen Dillane

Year: 2019

Country: USA, Ireland

Language: English

Runtime: 125 minutes

In The Professor and the Madman, Doctor W.C Minor (Sean Penn) is accused of the murder of a man, but is eventually found not guilty — not because of his innocence, but because he is deemed criminally insane. Meanwhile, Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is hired to compile the first ever Oxford English Dictionary. It is only when, after Murray attempts to ‘crowdsource’ for contributors, that Minor and Murray’s seemingly disparate lives intertwine. 

What strikes me most about this film is the fact that even though its premise seems to be straightforward enough, The Professor and the Madman is not simply about the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary — though that task proves arduous enough. Instead, in a strategic move that would draw in more viewers, the film focuses more on the lives of its characters, leaving the Oxford dictionary to be merely a strand that connects both characters together. Alongside a series of inciting events that pushes the story in unexpected directions, the film is undoubtedly thrilling to watch.

Words and languages are not shown to be static, but active, changing, evolving; and this constant movement is reflected in the hectic lives of Minor and Murray, who are struggling with their own battles. Words are not only a platform on which they exchange intellectual banter and ideas, but also a force that beckons and bonds them, and eventually becomes somewhat of a saving grace — especially to Minor.

Sean Penn plays the role of Minor, a disturbed man grappling with delusions and paranoia, and he certainly delivers. He manages to make Minor’s character a compelling one, and while he might occasionally play up the eccentricities of the role a little too much, he still manages to keep the essence of this troubled yet intelligent man intact. This is balanced by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of a much calmer, down-to-earth Murray, whose one-minded focus is only cemented with his wife’s and friend’s support of his goals. 

Their dialogue, however, tends to be on the wordier side, with rapid-fire exchanges of long words and heavy vocabulary making up most of their conversations. While this certainly serves to distinguish them as highly-intelligent individuals, its inaccessibility to the layman — such as myself — makes it tedious to listen to after a while. 

With the rich lives of these two complex men being the main focus of the film, there is the problem of the story having too much going on at any one point in time, which can get confusing. Alongside Murray’s attempt at compiling word definitions, he has to grapple with other academics who are one-dimensionally fixated on stealing his project for themselves, as well as ensure stability in his own family. On Minor’s side, on the other hand, he is not only finding words but struggling with the delusions from his own mind, contending with his own guilt, and attempting to seek redemption and forgiveness from a woman who he has wronged with his actions.

It is not only the story that has too much going on, but the characters within it as well. As minor characters slowly grow to take up the centre stage, I found myself questioning exactly whose story it was that I was watching, and what for. While I did enjoy seeing how some of the side characters are affected by Murray and Minor’s lives (Eddie Marsan’s character as the sympathetic asylum guard, for instance), it didn’t help that the rest of them aren’t especially fleshed out, and the sudden romance between Minor and Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) seems improbable at best. Perhaps the story could have done better with lesser — and stronger — characters, instead of attempting to encompass any and every person that might have been affected by Minor and Murray’s lives.

The Professor and the Madman makes a commendable effort at stringing both Minor and Murray’s stories in an exciting, albeit sensational, way that defies expectations of what a film about a dictionary might be. Even though it might be bogged down by too many details — and words — at times, it is still ultimately an enjoyable film that packs a lot of thrills and drama.

The Professor and the Madman is now showing at Shaw Theatres.

In the meantime, you can view the trailer here:

somehow both a dreamer and a realist at once; more articulate in the written word
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