Mel Gibson & Sean Penn Lead With Terrific Performances As They Compile Words Together To Create The First Edition Of The Oxford Dictionary. “The Professor & The Madman” Is A Riveting True Story That deserves More Praise Then It Got. I Don’t Need A Dictionary To Know That This Is One Of The Years Best Films.
“The Professor and the Madman” is one of those unlucky productions that hasn’t enjoyed an easy ride to it’s release. The feature was shot in 2016, that led to a legal battle between star Mel Gibson and Voltage Pictures, because the studio wouldn’t allow Gibson and original director Farhad Safinia to film scenes on location in Oxford, England.
The studio declined because the film was already over budget and behind schedule. Voltage pictures forced them to use Trinity College in Ireland as a substitute location. While the star’s name remains on the movie, co-writer/director Farhad Safinia elected to remove his name from the film and credit himself as P.B. Shemran. Gibson and his production company Icon Productions went to court to stop the movie from being released, claiming that they were not allowed to finish the movie, but their fight in court was unsuccessful. Gibson has since then refused to promote the film and refuses to talk about it.
Whomever was involved in ultimately bringing the story to the screen hasn’t done a poor job of adapting it. With the main subject matter being about the creation of the dictionary it is easy to turn away a lot of viewers. Farhad Safinia avoids a potentially bone-dry viewing experience by creating an intriguing drama.
Mel Gibson has worked on adapting the book, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” by Simon Winchester for over 20 years. Gibson, was originally intended to direct the film. He ended up parting ways as director and hired his “Apocalypto” co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia to replace him, while Gibson remained in the role of James Murray.
Set in the mid-19th century, the film tells the story of James Murray (Oscar winner Mel Gibson), a professor who begins to compile words for the very first edition of the Oxford English dictionary and receives over 10,000 contributions for the book from Dr. William Minor (two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn), an asylum patient locked up for murder. “The Professor and the Madman” gives Gibson his first serious lead role in a few years. Despite not being happy with the final product, Gibson doesn’t hold back and proves he still has the dramatic chops to deliver a memorable performance.
Watching powerhouses like Gibson and Penn act together for the first time in their careers is astonishing to see and hard to believe, it has only happened now. Gibson continues to be a solid presence as does the notably astonishing Sean Penn who channels Minor’s madness and genius in an intriguing way. Penn is still an acting force and he can act his way out of anything.
While the dictionary quest is present, the screenplay takes some time to experience the personal lives of both men. Safinia fixates on James’s investigation in the English language while William battles with the extremity of his undiagnosed illness. There’s a sense that these two men have an impact on each other, but in the film it’s obvious.
It’s also shot with a sense of intensity, using natural dialog from “Deliverance” filmmaker John Boorman who serves as screenwriter. While modern-style camerawork is used to intriguingly undermine the period tone. The film may have had a troubled past but “The Professor and the Madman”, is intriguing with two great lead performances. This is one of the years best films.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)