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The Professor and the Madman | Farhad Safinia

May 22, 2019

The Professor and the Madman arrives with an awful lot of baggage for such a modest, unassuming movie. As detailed by Nick Shager in a Daily Beast article, the film has been sitting on a shelf while Mel Gibson (whose company Icon Productions bought the rights to the Simon Winchester book on which this is based) and his hand-picked director, Farhad Safinia, have fought with the film’s producers. It has now received a delayed, perfunctory release, basically straight to VOD, with Safinia now credited under a pseudonym, P.B. Sherman. It’s not clear how much additional shooting would have helped the film, mostly because it is already reasonably successful, but also because the film’s flaws seem to stem from its basic conception. In other words, without a complete reworking from top to bottom, a few reshoots or additional sets and bits of dialogue were not going to measurably improve much. The Professor and the Madman charts the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gibson portrays James Murray (pointedly not a professor when the film begins), who is tasked with compiling every word in the English language, including individual histories and uses over centuries. Realizing the sheer, daunting volume of work involved, Murray devises a plan to have regular, everyday folks scour the history of literature (‘consult Milton’ is a recurring phrase) to find words and contextual definitions. Enter Sean Penn’s Dr. William Minor, who begins submitting a huge amount of words and definitions in support of Murray’s project. The snag is that Dr. Minor is imprisoned, acquitted of murder by reason of insanity but housed in an asylum while being treated for what is assumed to be a form of schizophrenia. (In the film’s single largest misstep, the widow of Minor’s victim, played by Natalie Dormer, gradually develops a kind of romantic attachment to Minor while visiting him in the asylum.)

This is sturdy, adequate filmmaking and nothing more, and that isn’t necessarily the backhanded compliment it suggests as plenty of mainstream releases that don’t clear even that low bar.

This is sturdy, adequate filmmaking and nothing more, and that isn’t necessarily the backhanded compliment it suggests as plenty of mainstream releases that don’t clear even that low bar. The period detail is realistic and lived-in, but everything is played straight and remains superficial: the story detailed here feels very much within the purview of prestige television, and the film could likely have been better served as a television miniseries or in an otherwise anthologized format. The narrative, while never boring, is not given the necessary room to breathe. Characters come and go, a parade of overqualified British actors (Stephen Dillane, Eddie Marsan, Steve Coogan) delivering fine work in service of little substance. Even the passage of time manages to feel mishandled. This herculean task is going to take many years, and we are given unambiguous expressions of this passage: various children are shown to visibly age, and Sean Penn’s beard continues to get bigger and whiter while the hair on his head thins. But these are simple, depthless signifiers the audience is never made to feel this duration or the mental toll that this endeavor has taken. Still, the yet larger problem is the film’s presiding subtext, which plays out as a plea on behalf of co-stars Gibson and Penn. For his part, allegations of abuse have dogged Penn for years, as has his reputation as a surly, petulant bully, while Gibson’s history of racist invective and domestic abuse is well known and amply documented. But The Professor and the Madman wants us to know that to forgive is divine, that men are not just the sum of their violent parts and that they are still capable of love and so on and so forth. It’s a noble thought, but one perhaps unwisely spent on these two performers.

You can currently stream Farhad Safinia’s The Professor and the Madman on Amazon Prime.

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