Mel Gibson, Sean Penn

Published November 29, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

My rating: B (Now on Amazon Prime) |124 minutes | No MPAA rating

Given that it was initiated three years ago by Mel Gibson’s production company, that its release was delayed by internal controversy, and that its director has insisted on using an alias in the credits, one expects “The Professor and the Madman” to be a hot mess.

Instead it is a fascinating slice of history and a moving tale of friendship and salvation. Plus it features one of Sean Penn’s greatest performances.

Be thankful the film was picked up by Amazon, where it will be experienced by far more people than would have paid to see it in a theater.

Based on Simon Winchester’s non-fiction best seller of the same name, “Professor…” stars Gibson as James Murray, a self-taught Scotsman who ended up leading a team that over 70 years produced the Oxford English Dictionary, an attempt to catalogue and parse the history of every word in the English language.

A genius with an almost encyclopedic memory when it came to language, Murray set up a system by which everyday British citizens from throughout the Empire could contribute postcard-sized analyses of words, quoting examples of their use in great literature.

His work created problems on the domestic front — Murray’s obsession with the project led to tension with the Missus (Jennifer Ehle). And he was forever being undercut by the titled snobs attached to the project, who resented Murray’s Scottish background and his lack of a university degree.

Murray is the “professor” of the title.  The “madman” is a veteran of the American Civil War, surgeon William Minor (Penn), who suffered from what today might have been diagnosed as PTSD, along with a good dose of schizophrenia.

Minor was convinced he was being targeted by an assassin; in Lambeth in 1871 he shot to death George Merrett, a man he believed was stalking him. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in an asylum.

Natalie Dormer

Eventually Minor, who had periods of more or less normal behavior, became one of the most productive contributors to Murray’s dictionary.  Historically it took Murray nearly a decade to discover this valuable collaborator was a mental patient; when he did learn of Minor’s predicament he became the prisoner’s advocate.

The screenplay by John Boorman, Todd Komarnicki and Farad Safina (the latter directed the movie under the pseudonym P.B. Sherman) for the most part follows the facts as related in Winchester’s book.

They do go out on a limb by creating a relationship between Minor and Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer), the widow of the man he killed.  It begins with the madman turning his U.S. Army pension over to the family; bit by bit Eliza comes to respect and possibly love the man who wrecked her life.

This invention could have been clumsily handled; thanks to the quality of the performers it works. And it generates in Minor a sense of guilt that will lead to a horrific act of self mutilation.

The film also delivers a hair-raising dose of “therapeutic” techniques to which Minor is subjected by the asylum superintendent (Stephen Dillane) — they look suspiciously like waterboarding.

“The Professor and the Madman” has a spectacularly deep cast (other players include Eddie Marsan, Steve Coogan and Ioan Gruffudd).

Gibson is solid as Murray, torn between family and work.

Penn is extraordinary in his depiction of insanity interrupted by spells of rational thought that lead only to crushing guilt. The film’s underlying theme is the search for redemption, and Penn fearlessly plumbs those depths.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.