The Professor and the Madman
You will like much of this movie, but not all of it.
Set in England in 1872, the film recreates an actual moment in history. Professor James Murray, played unexpectedly well by Mel Gibson, is reluctantly hired to compose the first Oxford English Dictionary. In the process he receives over 10,000 entries from an inmate in an insane asylum, and that will undoubtedly interest most of you.
And for those still in doubt, consider the fact that the inmate, Dr. William Minor, is played by Sean Penn. Clearly suffering what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia following his service in America’s Civil War, he mistakenly shoots and kills the father of a large family. In his deranged state, he believes he is being stalked by an unknown stranger.
First of all, what I found fascinating about many of today’s films is that well known actors are bearded. That applies to both Gibson and Penn as well as George Clooney in The Midnight Sky, Tom Hanks in News of the World and Harrison Ford in The Call of the Wild. My son cryptically feels that this is an ego trip for aging actors but I strongly disagree given that I’ve worn mine since the 1970’s!
In any event, the strength and weakness of the movie centers on the evolving relationship of both Gibson’s Professor and the widow of the murder victim, played with passion by Natalie Dormer, with the mentally unhinged Penn. While you watch them gradually try to help Penn deal with his mental trauma, the widow’s relationship evolves to the point that nearly destroys the film.
Yet what helped this film bridge its weaknesses are a number of fine performances. Though I am not a big fan of Mr. Gibson, he showed the strength he previously displayed in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Braveheart (1995). Sean Penn can best be described as delivering a performance that earned this film any praise thrown its way.
I should also mention the performances of accomplished actors Steve Coogan, Eddie Marsan and Jennifer Ehle. Coogan is always fun to watch, here as the only supervisor of Gibson that stood in his corner. Marsan was great as always in a small role. Here as a caring guard of Penn. As for Ms. Ehle, her attitude as Gibson’s wife reflected the feeling of many viewers who stuck around to the end. She was bored with his lengthy absences and just wanted him home to help take care of their kids.