If you thought David O’Russell’s biographical-drama Joy, a film which followed the trials and tribulations of miracle-mop entrepreneur Joy Mangano, had the most obscure origin story, then think again.
Told with the zealous sensibilities of a theatre production, director Farhad Safinia’s (listed as P.B. Shemran) biographical-dramatization of the wordsmiths responsible for the surprisingly scandalous history of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, features no shortage of emotionally jarring wordplay.
Possessing a strong belief in the importance of preserving language (thus preserving history), Scottish lexicographer James Murray (Mel Gibson) sets out to document the definition and origin of every word in the English language – slang and all.
Despite initial confidence in achieving this feat within a tight five-year timeline set out by snivelling Oxford academics, the likes of whom wish to sanitise the world of ‘commoners’ language, the task proves all the more overwhelming for the ambitious Murray and his crack team of researchers.
As luck would have it, a request for volunteer contributors finds its way to W. C. Minor (Sean Penn); a seasoned academic and American army surgeon who would go on to contribute over ten thousand entries into the Oxford English Dictionary. The only catch; Minor is doing so while undergoing treatment at a British “Lunatic Asylum”.
With The Professor and the Madman, Shemran sets out to denounce the barriers education and language has on classism. The film is at its strongest when discussing such themes, but is undercut by the strange, borderline obsessive friendship between Murray and Minor. Exactly who is the Professor and who is the Madman is a piece of self-congratulatory introspection the film takes great, sneery pride in.
The choice to cast Gibson and Penn, two of Hollywood’s most controversial actors working today, makes selling The Professor and the Madman to a wide-audience a difficult feat. It is unsurprising that despite strong performances, particularly from Gibson, the film had failed to connect with voters in the award syndicates.
The subject of Penn’s performance, undeniably committed and dialled up to eleven, feels tonally out of place against the broader quietness of the film. It is a feat that becomes even more apparent by unconvincing romances – Penn proving overwhelming in every scene he features with Natalie Dormer – and dishwatery flashbacks whose repetitiveness feels trite.
Penn swings big in his portrayal of an army veteran suffering from schizophrenia and PTSD, but his performance becomes bogged down by a film fascinated with depicting the extreme side effects of mental illness. The portrayal comes at the expense of balancing out tone, with the filmmakers feeling more compelled to stretch out an interesting historical fact rather than tell a structured film.
If going by the events in The Professor and the Madman, reading the Oxford English Dictionary may prove as exciting as the story behind its inception. And who knows, with a movie soon to be released about the creator of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, we have another contender in the battle for the most dubious sounding film premise.
The Professor and the Madman screens nationally from 20 February 2020. For more information, visit: www.transmissionfilms.com.au for details.
Image: Mel Gibson and Sean Penn star in The Professor and the Madman (supplied)
Review: Hagan Osborne