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The Professor and the Madman (2019)


Oh, this was so promising. The story of two men in their middle years in the time of mighty beards and human branding. One, an American ex soldier with terrifying mental health issues and delusions that change his life in clip-sloppy London. Another, Scots and aiming for Snottily-English Oxford to take on the rolling failure of building an Oxford English Dictionary. Yep – proper history, mostly true and a tale of strange men in strange times and the magnificent project that nailed them together: The Professor and the Madman.

So, dilettante James Murray (Mel Gibson doing beard and that accent) persuades the academics to let him have a go at writing a dictionary their colleagues have failed to do for years. The mission is huge: to confirm every word in the English language, with brief histories and written evidence of usage. Written. Evidence. The job is a bitch, next to impossible, and becomes a stressing obsession for this man of determination, family and grace.

Things drag on. They get tough. They nearly break everyone involved (define art – go on, dare ya). Murray faces off snakiness and opportunism from university politicos hunting budget and credit. Laurence Fox is particularly boo-able in his scenes of posh condescension and back-stabbing, even when Murray has published the letter A after several years. Oh yeah. This job is a multiple lifetimes one.

And Murray’s beard, indiscernibly, gets longer. Gibson’s performance becomes ever more stoic: he is, in film as in life, the attacked man… his Murray needs help and – with a cold eye on the risk of drawing out freaks and weirdos – turns to the public. His luck is in, because he draws out a freak and weirdo set to gift him 10,000 words…

Enter Sean Penn in ultra-intensive grunt and gibber mode as Doctor William Chester Minor. The ex-soldier, flashbacking to branding a prisoner in the Americas, kills a killer in the streets of London…only he doesn’t. He kills the wrong man and fast forwards through mental health assessments of the time (you, sir, are mad and guilty) and goes off to Broadmoor to rave and contribute words to the OED.

And then things get annoying.

This weird friendship spawns more weirdness as the wife of the man killed by Penn (played warmly and realistically by Natalie Dormer…mostly because she doesn’t do one-note super-sexy-powerful-woman schtick) takes reading lessons from him and then… well, perhaps this isn’t entirely a true tale..?

Meantime, the stars meet up as Murray twigs his source is not wholly well…and engages with decency…even as Penn goes full nut-job in the face of Stephen Dillane‘s well-meaning but brutal experimenter in psychiatric remedies… The film slides towards dull, when…suddenly…SPOILERS…

Tip: when you reach this bit, be sure not to be eating.

This film starts so well! Old Jack was learning things about the OED and the definition of words that felt exciting, new and relevant. Gibson held the line well for this part of the film, though it’s difficult not to see him as a damaged actor earning back credibility though force of wit. Then, boom, the story starts serving its stars over its story. And that’s why old Jack watched this in two chunks: one enjoyable; one…to be endured for completeness.

Give it a go, but know it’ll teach you things then start muttering at its shoes. Oh, and suddenly cut off at the letter P.

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