The Professor and the Madman
Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Steve Coogan, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Irvine, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Dillane
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… the film’s musings on language, definition and redefinition, and its dual character study at its core, it makes for decent viewing.
What does it take to be forgiven? Is there a true line whose crossing deems one as being entirely beyond redemption? Are there any singular feats that are capable of rebalancing the scales of one’s actions? The directorial debut of frequent Mel Gibson collaborator Farhad Safinia (directing as P.B. Shebran here) uses a stranger-than-fiction tale to explore these questions, that of the initial creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the contributions of William Chester Minor, who added a significant amount to the effort while serving as an inmate in a psychiatric hospital.
With the infamous exploits of the main stars being part of pop culture legend for so damn long, it makes one ponder if the film’s look at guilt and forgiveness is meant to reflect on both the real-life subject being portrayed and the actors portraying them. Mel Gibson as the titular Professor, along with handling the Scottish accent with adequate lucidity, delivers his frequently populist quips with great aplomb. And as for Sean Penn as the Madman, it makes for a remarkable return to his emotionally intensive roots, as his depiction of a man in the clutches of shellshock and schizophrenia ranges from sombre to harrowing.
The film is at its best when it highlights their working relationship and budding friendship, with Professor James Murray (Gibson) wanting to basically democratise the English language through a form of retro-crowdsourcing for the dictionary, and Minor (Penn) being given a working routine that allows him clarity and peace of mind through that crowdsourcing. Aided by Safinia and Todd Komarnicki’s dialogue, which uses the inherent literacy of the premise as an excuse for all kinds of wordplay throughout, they create an interesting dichotomy that highlights both the ingenuity and insanity required to perform such a colossal undertaking as cataloguing an ever-shifting language for posterity.
In terms of the redemptive arc, finding Minor in lingering bouts of crippling guilt over the life he took that ultimately landed him in the asylum, the film relies on modern-day empathy regarding mental illness to really make its point. Admittedly, such a task proves fruitful… until the cracks begin to show in the film’s overall understanding of forgiveness.
The scenes between Penn and Natalie Dormer as the wife of the man Minor killed, while palpably heartfelt, keep depicting the act of forgiveness as a foregone conclusion. It makes the same mistake that a lot of people make in thinking that just the want for penance is enough to grant it. It’s a tad selfish in its machinations and, knowing Gibson’s history with self-indulgently masochistic stories (Passion Of The Christ, anyone?), a bit suss even without the meta aspect creeping in.
But even with the prominent Gibsonisms in the text itself, the film’s musings on language, definition and redefinition, and its dual character study at its core, it makes for decent viewing. Whether that’s enough to overlook its flaws, its cast, or Safinia and Gibson actively distancing themselves from the production at large is up to the interpreter, but in the spirit of theme, it’s worth giving a chance.