BOOKISH GALLANTRIES: Mel Gibson and Sean Penn play a professor and a murderer who work toward compiling the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Professor and the Madman

  • Drama, biography; Cert M, contains violence
  • Starring: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Ioan Gruffudd, Jeremy Irvine, Brendan Patricks, Adam Fergus and Jennifer Ehle
  • Director: Farhad Safinia

SADLY, the idea behind how James Murray and William Chester Minor collaborated to create the Oxford English Dictionary is far more compelling than the reality.

In 1879 Oxford University handed the job of completing the dictionary to self-taught scholar Murray (Mel Gibson).

His small team of undergraduates began what has been called one of the most ambitious, and revolutionary academic projects ever undertaken.

After discovering it would take the better part of a century to compile the information, Murray decided to crowd source the project by inviting other academics to assist.

Enter Dr Minor (Sean Penn) a civil war veteran and convicted murderer being held at an asylum for the criminally insane.

With plenty of time on his hands and a surprisingly large library for an imprisoned murderer, Dr Minor provided as many as 10,000 dictionary entries by himself.

The two meet at the halfway point of the film, where each is taken with the other – as if finding their soulmates – exchanging bookish gallantries on a bench.

Minor is a godsend for Murray’s project, and Murray has given the murderer a type of stability.

It all gets worse when the film works toward its true intent, which is to vindicate these men. It’s less about the dictionary or its importance than it is positing Murray and Minor as underdogs.

One is fighting for his editing job, the other in grave need of protection from the asylum’s harmful rehabilitation techniques. The story tries to sell us on cheap pity for their lost potential.

It seems both Gibson and Penn were attracted to the project because it had the type of roles they had been clawing for in other projects.

Gibson gets to play a misunderstood genius and Penn has carte blanche to scream like a madman and suffer.

But while The Professor and the Madman might seem tailor-made for the two, it ultimately has no real payoff at the end of its two-hour runtime.