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The Professor and the Madman: Better Off Alone

Mixing Play-Doh, ketchup, macaroni, and marshmallows may have seemed like a great idea when you were three, but as you grow up, you realise each of these items is better off alone. Similarly, The Professor and The Madman’s several subplots were better off alone.

A professor by the name of James Murray (Mel Gibson), begins working on the very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary. When the professor faces several issues, including being short on manpower and not being able to track the history of words, his unexpected saviour is Dr William Minor (Sean Penn), a patient in a criminal lunatic asylum. Can Dr Minor be sane enough to help Professor Murray finish this monumental task?

The feature is based on a book published in 1998 by Simon Winchester called The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

The core concept of how the first dictionary was created is much more interesting than you would think, and most people have probably not thought too much about it. 

But the film’s plot involves so much more; from why Dr. Minor went to prison, his newly found relationship with the widow of the man he killed, his condition and his backstory, to Professor Murray’s family life and the politics within the committee that is responsible for creating the first ever dictionary.

All these aspects are fascinating; however, the feature gives equally little focus to each one, making them seem like a multitude of unfinished thoughts. The film would have been much more interesting if it mainly focused on the relationship between Dr Minor and the widow of the man he killed, how hate can turn into forgiveness and forgiveness can turn into something else, or on the unlikely friendship between Dr Minor and Professor Murray, or even the process of creating the dictionary.

The film was shot in few locations but was thoughtfully lit and well shot, with several eye-catching frames.

As for the acting, Sean Penn gave a compelling performance especially when it came to his character’s crazy moments, and was also able to keep the intrigue of whether his character’s delusions about a man coming after him were real or not. Penn’s facial expressions and body language were outstanding as they helped him mirror the quick but subtle shift between a perfectly sane man and a mad one. Mel Gibson’s performance was more underplayed due to the nature of his character, but his performance was not the most memorable. Gibson’s facial expressions were limited, and he only fed off Penn’s expressions for reactions in his most memorable moments.

The Professor and The Madman could have been an unforgettable movie, but instead, the only unforgettable thing was Sean Penn’s moments of insanity.

Like This? Try

A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Theory of Everything (2014), The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), The Imitation Game (2014).

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The making of the film led to a legal battle between star Mel Gibson and Voltage Pictures, because the latter wouldn't allow Gibson and original director Farhad Safinia to film scenes on location in Oxford, England. Because the film was already over budget and behind schedule, Voltage forced them to use Trinity College in Ireland as a substitute. Gibson and Safinia eventually left the project, with a new director and a new screenwriter (Todd Komarnicki) taking over. Gibson and his production company Icon Productions went to court to prevent the movie from being released, claiming that they were not allowed to finish the movie, but were unsuccessful. Gibson refused to promote the film afterwards.

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