Apart from its notable performances and production values, The Professor and the Madman is a mournful account of how the Oxford dictionary came to be. It’s got moments of exuberance as any endeavor should have, but the journey is mainly a gloom. The true story is fascinating for sure. It involves a highly educated scholar and his friendship with an asylum inmate. Both are impassioned to create the first oxford dictionary but for different reasons.
The introduction sees Dr. Minor (Sean Penn) running after an innocent man through empty streets and tragically killing him at the doorstep of his home. Years later he is convicted and confined to prison on grounds of insanity. Penn looks gruff and bearded than ever and gives a performance of great effort. Mel Gibson is professor Murray, also with a shaggy beard, but a family man and renowned academic assigned to spearhead the exhausting task of creating the dictionary by compiling words and definitions from all around the world. Under a project deadline, he works alongside a couple of assistants in a cabin for long hours through the night. Then Dr. Minor learns of his work and voluntarily provides aid by scribbling hundreds of text definitions with an obsessive manner in his cell and mailing them to the Professor.
The period details which include costume and setting are superb. The directing by P.B. Shemran seems competent. Gibson is in the more manageable role as an impassioned researcher while Penn’s madman persona is volatile and shifting and speaks with an accent that isn’t too discernible. Both leads are able to flesh out their characters. However there must be an issue with the performance of the supporting characters, the scholars who overlook the assignment. They recite dialogue to one another but don’t seem to speak to each other. They exchange didactic lines as if speaking to the movie audience instead of one another. And there are also moments of gruesome violence that could have been left off. The film is very watchable otherwise and is able to earn some of our emotions. It’s not that watching these characters gathering word definitions is compelling, but rather that the surrounding events garners attention. It’s a story worth being told and the lead actors are a curious choice, but there is much sadness in this account particularly from Penn’s character.