The Professor and the Madman – Film Review

Based on the 1998 book ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words’ by Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman is a biographical drama that tells the story of James Murray (Mel Gibson) as he starts work on compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary which proves to be an arduous task for both him and his team, until he starts receiving entries from a source that will start an interesting friendship.

The year is 1879 and James Murray (Gibson) has been granted permission to write the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray and his team start compiling words but they soon realise that this task is a lot more challenging than they originally thought. That is, until they start receiving entries from one of the most unlikely of places, a Criminal Lunatic Asylum. 

W.C Minor (Sean Penn) is sentenced to stay at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for committing murder. While in the asylum, Minor hears about the idea to write the first ever dictionary and decided to start contributing words for the book much to the delight of James Murray.

Minor is frequently visited by Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) who is the widow of the man that he murdered. At first she is unable to forgive him for what he did, but over time she notices that he is mentally unstable and gifts him books to read and in return he teaches her how to read. As Minor starts to become closer to Eliza, his mental health starts to deteriorate and it becomes clear to James Murray that he needs to help his friend before he self-destructs.

There is a lot to enjoy in The Professor and the Madman. I particularly enjoyed the moments when James Murray and his team are researching and writing definitions for the words that would end up in the dictionary. Mel Gibson‘s portrayal of James Murray is impressive, making you believe that he has a love of words by how enthusiastic his character is while working on the project.

While the relationship between W.C Minor and Eliza Merrett is interesting to see unfold, it is Sean Penn‘s performance as W.C. Minor that is outstanding by looking like a beaten man with his bad posture, long beard and messy hair, making you feel sorry for him. This changes as his character appears happy when he is researching words and having light-hearted scenes with James as they exchange obscure words in an attempt to outwit each other. Gibson and Penn‘s on-screen chemistry is captivating to witness.

The Professor and the Madman is an intelligent film about the beginning of one of the most important books to ever be published, which even now is continuously being re-written as the English language progresses and new words are being added. But more importantly, The Professor and the Madman tells the story about the people that started it all.

The Professor and the Madman opens in Australian Cinemas on the 20th of February.

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