Current Issue #482

Film Review:
Professor and the Madman

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn star in this creaky drama which was disowned by Gibson after endless problems and lawsuits during production – and if Mad Mel disowns a movie, then it’s got to be a mess.

Drawn from the true story of Professor James Murray (Gibson) who began compiling the Oxford Dictionary in 1879 and let the thing overtake his life, it suffers from myriad issues: iffy playing; a glum look; questionable facts; the revelation that it was shot at Trinity College, Ireland, and nowhere near Oxford; too many speechifying blokes with too many fake beards; and more.

Gibson’s polymath Murray is given a hard time when he approaches the Oxford bods to contribute to the dictionary, and the stuffy academic guys ponder whether they should allow a Scotsman to get involved (and, to be fair, Gibson does sound almost Scottish – almost). When the professor starts working with words he rarely sees his family. As the years pass, he also begins to communicate with brilliant Dr Minor (Penn), an American Civil War veteran being held at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital after committing a murder while in the grip of long-term PTSD.

When Murray and Minor meet there might be vague pleasure in seeing these big names together onscreen for the first time, but these moments are jarring because Gibson (an instinctual actor) and Penn (a sometimes ridiculously Method performer) seem such an odd match – even if that’s kind of the point. But they’re the whole show anyway, and overshadow Steve Coogan (in a few scenes as Murray’s friend Frederick James Furnivall), Eddie Marsan (as Broadmoor guard Muncie), and Game of Thrones actor Natalie Dormer (as Eliza Merrett, widow of Minor’s victim and the only woman here who properly gets a word in edgeways).

The first feature from screenwriter-turned-director Farhad Safinia (using the pseudonym ‘P.B. Shemran’ to show his disgust at the post-production fiddling), this perhaps isn’t quite as dire as Gibson would have you believe – but it’s certainly not good.

Professor and the Madman (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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