The Professor and the Madman: a deeply emotional film about obsession, suffering, forgiveness and redemption

Farhad Safinia (P B Shemran), “The Professor and the Madman” (2019)

Adapted from the novel “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” by British-American journalist Simon Winchester, this film is a dramatic retelling of the early creation of the Oxford English Dictionary as a historical dictionary tracing the origins and development of the English language through its individual words and the changes that occurred in the meanings and usages of these words over time. The film focuses on the editorship of James Murray (played by Mel Gibson) who accepted the position in 1872 from the Philological Society, a group of intellectual men in London, after previous editors had given up due to the enormous scale and complexity of the task. Murray’s solution to the problem is to recruit eager amateurs (in a Victorian equivalent of crowd-sourcing) through London booksellers. Eventually one very eager amateur, submitting several thousand entries of words with their histories and quotations demonstrating their use, is one Dr William Chester Minor (Sean Penn). Murray is keen to visit this prolific contributor and his curiosity takes him to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum where he discovers Minor is an inmate who has been committed there because he had murdered a man.

The film tells the stories of both Murray, coming to the editorship of the OED and bringing his wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) and family to Trinity College to work on the dictionary, and of Minor, from the time he murders someone he mistakes for a Civil War deserter whom he believes to be following him to his incarceration at Broadmoor, in parallel. Murray must contend with the pressure and complexity of the OED project itself, and the pressure from Oxford University Press publisher Gell (Laurence Fox) and Oxford University administrator Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) to deliver a dictionary more to their liking than to what Murray believes it should be. His wife Ada and their children are neglected for long periods of time, though as the film progresses some of the children become involved in their father’s work. Minor labours under the burden of guilt for having killed an innocent man and leaving the victim’s widow Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) and her seven children destitute, as well as past traumas from his time as an army surgeon during the US Civil War (including apparently having to brand a man as a deserter) that induce paranoia. A third sub-plot, not very convincing, involves Merrett meeting Minor at Broadmoor and over time the two becoming romantically involved after Minor offers to teach Merrett how to read and write.

Though the various sub-plot threads might be too much to handle for a first-time director, Safinia (credited as P B Shemran due to a legal dispute with the production company Voltage Pictures over the control of the film’s production, leading to Gibson and Safinia dissociating themselves from the project) does a very deft job keeping the parallel tales of Murray and Minor balanced. This viewer did not find having to follow the sub-plots confusing. The mostly sober acting carries the film all the way through; even actors in minor roles, in particular Ehle as Ada Murray and Eddie Marsan as Broadmoor prison warden Muncie, do excellent work in giving their characters substance, warmth and humanity. As Minor, afflicted by his guilt, traumas and maybe other psychological undercurrents, Penn delivers an outstanding performance in portraying a man who, despite the demons that torment him, finds love, acceptance and redemption.

The film does play a little hard and fast with facts – it creates a fictitious and implausible scenario in which Minor saves a prison guard’s life, receives a book from the other guards as thanks and discovers Murray’s appeal for contributions to the OED project inside the gift – and nearly 30 years are compressed into 124 minutes of film, during which Minor ages but the Murray and Everett children remain much the same. The fictional additions and the chronological irregularities however do not disrupt the overall narrative in which obsession, undergoing extreme ordeals of suffering as tests of faith, and Christian forgiveness and redemption are strong themes. Cinematography is very good and the attention to period detail, even to prevailing social mores of the late 1800s, is excellent. If there is one major fault of the film, it must be that the villains – the aforementioned Gell and Jowett, and Dr Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) with the sinister interest in phrenology at Broadmoor asylum – tend to be character stereotypes with Andrews in particular frozen in yet another effete English aristocrat character sketch. Significantly the all-English villains have a common interest in control of one kind or another: Gell, Jowett and their fellow intellectuals are keen on controlling the English language as a language of imperial power; and Dr Brayne tries to control and manipulate Minor using phrenology and torture. In wresting the OED away from the English intellectual elite and saving Minor from Dr Brayne’s ministrations, Murray becomes a hero of the common people.

For a film of its length, with the somewhat intellectual and dry subject matter it has, this movie turns out to be deeply emotional (even a bit sentimental) and concentrates audience attention very well.