The Professor and the Madman (2019)
The Incredible True Story That Defined Our World.
Mel Gibson’s new venture unreservedly garbles the history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary to turn it into a narrative about forgiving unspeakable actions and a bathetic battle being waged between two co-existing and impenetrable walls; that of elite academia and the corrupt nineteenth-century medical establishment as seen in places like Bedlam and Broadmoor. Rather than a fascinating piece on the creation of one of the most important resources in the English language, the audience is treated to historical inaccuracy, mostly one-dimensional characters, and a near nauseating romantic subplot that renders the film less about the extraordinary act of creating one of the most impressive lexicons of the English language, and more about how redemption and forgiveness are deserved if some noble pursuit or great art emerges in the end.
The production was plagued with issues, with director/ writer Farhad Safinia (who co-write the script with John Boorman and Todd Komarnicki) changing his name on the piece and replacing it with P.B. Shemran, and Gibson refusing to do any publicity for the film. Gibson’s passion project to adapt the Simon Winchester book ran through years in development with Gibson originally slated to direct, then Boorman, Excalibur (1981), but the task eventually fell to Apocalypto (2006) writer Safinia. Due to issues Gibson and Safinia had with how much filming time was given (purportedly it was already over budget and overlong) and how the film was cut, Gibson entered litigation with the production firm to destroy all copies. However, it’s unlikely a different cut or extra shooting could save the film, especially from the inclusion of the entirely fictional love story between the widow Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer), and the Madman William Chester Minor (Sean Penn).
Minor shot Eliza’s innocent husband George in a fit of unhinged paranoia and delusion, leaving her pregnant and with several children to care for with no source of income. Whilst it is true that Eliza Merrett forgave Minor to the extent that she accepted money from his Army pension and brought him books to the asylum, she did not, however, become his saving grace and avenging angel. The film repulsively concentrates on how Minor saves Eliza from a life of prostitution through his acts of remorse. Included is a gratuitous scene showing her servicing clients. It even suggests that his self-castration was due to his guilt over feeling love for the wife of the man he murdered. The reality was that Minor, who thought he was being transported at night from the asylum, castrated himself in an attempt to stop himself from committing lewd acts on children all around the world.
Embellishments on the source material are unnecessary and distracting. Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) was a fascinating character. Indeed, it was his idea to essentially crowd-source the creation of the OED to ensure completeness that had not been attempted since Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. Thusly, Murray shakes up the stuffy academic establishment by adding a ‘common touch’ to the language by allowing non-experts, and amateur philologists to provide definitions of words. His campaign to send out thousands of requests for people to define words as they knew and used them brings him to Minor, the Surgeon of Crowthorne (Crowthorne being where Broadmoor is located). Minor in the film is portrayed as a PTSD affected Civil War surgeon and mysterious auto-didact. What was missing from the film is that he was a slum dwelling womanizer, who landed in the very seedy Lambeth quite deliberately after his time in the States. Whilst on his home soil he spent most of his time in red-light districts in New York interspersed with periods spent in Florida asylums. He was riddled with venereal diseases. Images of Minor being present at any of the major battles depicted in the film are mostly apocryphal, and the director doesn’t make it clear that Minor’s memories are delusions or fact, but it does feel like he’s trying to land on the latter.
Narratively underserved is Mrs. Ada Murray (Jennifer Ehle). Considered by many of Murray’s contemporaries to be his intellectual equal, Ada’s role in the film is to fuss over her husband, put up with his familial neglect, and eventually storm into some Oxford Don’s club and demand they take his work seriously. It’s a thankless role for Ehle and does nothing to investigate gender inequality in the period. Women exist only as adjuncts to the men they advocate for.
The filmmakers, because at this stage it’s unclear who is responsible for which aspect of the film, try so desperately to instill drama through stagey subplots into the narrative, they forget that the story they had access to really was enough to make a great film. Even a top rate cast including Anthony Andrews, Steve Coogan, Jeremy Irvine, Ioan Gruffudd, Laurence Fox (playing a character I like to call privileged twit); and the two stand out actors Eddie Marsan, as the go-between and kindly asylum guard Mr. Muncie, and Stephen Dillane, as the out of control Alienist Dr. Richard Brayn, can do little to resurrect turgid scripting. The asylum scenes are reminiscent of the excesses visited on Geoffrey Rush’s Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) by Michael Caine’s Royer-Collard, or the excesses again shown in Nicholas Hytner’s film The Madness of King George (1994). The primary difference is that both films are set over one hundred years previously, and although psychiatry was still a barbarous game, it is overplayed to excess in the film.
Sean Penn’s performance is mostly defined by his mumbling absurdities in between fits of guilt-ridden and productive reason. As the toll of his delusions grows upon him and he reaches a catatonic state, Murray steps in for him, and with the aid of Eliza Merrett, they try to overturn the original internment and have him released from the asylum. The film then shifts to courtroom drama. At this stage, it would be pointless for me to say that a kernel of truth — that Murray did campaign on his behalf, and eventually Winston Churchill did deport Minor back to the States in 1910 — is fictionalized to provide a heroic narrative for Murray and a redemptive arc for Minor. Eliza Merrett had died five years previously after she succumbed to extreme alcoholism.
The film is certainly a visually stylish affair with the cinematography by Kasper Tuxen, Darkland (2017), and set design by Tom Conroy, Legend (2015), evoking a strong sense of late Victorian England. However, no matter the talent working behind the scenes, the film is stuffy, sanctimonious, and so wholly riddled with self-indulgence that it has already been consigned to the dust bin of cinematic history as an abject failure. The good news is that if you want a much better version of the story, it’s available as a Season 5 episode of Drunk History (2013) starring Bob Odenkirk as Minor.
1 / 5 – Don’t Waste Your Time
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney