When you consider the fact that there are so many movies with weak-ass plots that someone actually imagined, the script for this movie seems like pure gold. Mel Gibson understood this and bought the rights for this movie back in 1998. The same year when Simon Winchester published his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Based on true events that seem stranger than fiction The Professor and the Madman is a great movie with a sense of wasted potential. It could have been a masterpiece, but for now, let’s focus on the positives. Starring Mel Gibson with his epic beard and Sean Penn with a not-so-epic beard, this is one of those movies with a nice flow and pacing. You know the ones you play on a rainy Sunday afternoon and just lose yourself in them. With a runtime of just under two hours, the delivery needed to be pitch-perfect.
I mean, we’re talking about an exhilarating adventure that is writing of a dictionary after all. A subject that seems so boring that you feel it’s practically impossible to make an engaging movie about it. The casting was excellent and when casting is excellent, usually the performances follow. Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, and Steve Coogan were all phenomenal, supporting two acting veterans doing what they do best. With beautiful sets and great costumography, The Professor and the Madman looks great. This helps with a bit slower pacing that was necessary to tell this extraordinary tale of friendship and redemption. However, it also tells a story about how mental health was treated back then.
James Murray, a self-thought expert when it comes to words and languages is about to embark on the journey of his life. It is the year 1857 James finally got to write the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary. A project that he takes on with an unbreakable will and zest of a much younger man. With the attention of the entire academic community on him, he soon finds himself overpowered by the sheer volume of the work that needs to be done. Desperate, one day he receives a letter from Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. A letter that seems to be an answer to his problems…
There are several really powerful story arcs here and with such strong characters, it’s easy to lose track of them. Sometimes movies focused on let’s say insane asylums in the past are finding it difficult to present a coherent story. Here, perhaps exactly because the characters are so strong, they managed to keep our focus on the right things. One of them, the redemption story of our surgeon left me puzzled. Even after a couple of days, I would found myself contemplating his life and how I feel about it. Now that we got that out of the way, it’s time for some harsh truths.
First of all, Mel Gibson and original director Farhad Safinia, left the movie after Voltage Pictures refused to spend any more money on an already over-the-budget project. Mel even tried to stop it from being released and refused to promote it after he lost that battle, losing his freedom once again. This could be the reason why The Professor and the Madman feels a bit disjointed at times, although this could be just bad writing. And finally, we have to talk about the performances of our two leads who overacted a bit. I think they felt this is the perfect role for them to show all their talents. Especially this late in their careers.
This influenced the overall atmosphere of the movie that’s nor here nor there. I mean the base material is just so potent that it begs special attention. Again, this could be a consequence of the above-mentioned production troubles so I do not want to be too hard on them. Still, The Professor and the Madman is worth watching. If for nothing else, then to find out more about the lives of these two strange and fascinating men.
Director: Farhad Safinia (as P.B. Sherman)
Writers: John Boorman, Todd Komarnicki, Farhad Safinia, Simon Winchester
Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Eddie Marsan, Stephen Dillane, Natalie Dormer, Jennifer Ehle
Fun Facts: This movie marks the first time Mel Gibson and Sean Penn star in a movie together.