After the largesse of “Avengers: Endgame” and the forthcoming tsunami of summer movies, I had the urge to see something smaller and a little more personal. Enduring several weeks of virtual assault to my eyes and ears made me want to see a movie that required little more than sitting back and having my senses blasted to oblivion. As luck would have it, the film adaptation of the 1998 novel “The Surgeon of Crowethorne” was being released on-demand under the books later titled, “The Professor and the Madman.”
Before delving into the plot, I need to express what a weird movie this is at the onset. From the true story it’s based on, to the obtuse academic plot that drives much of the story, while “The Professor and the Madman” is both small and personal, it’s also a challenging movie with some unbridled and bizarre aspects. Though, it all works in the film’s favor. Allow me to elaborate…
It’s 1857 and Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is an affable Scotsman charged with putting together the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a challenge that feels daunting, given the limits of technology and the need to pretty much track the origins of every word in the English language by using book volumes for reference. No computers, no Ctrl+F—just the maddening need to source and cite everything by hand. The job will come to consume Doctor Murray’s life and keep him at arm’s length from his family, forcing him to deal with the elitist cutthroat politics of a stuffy British educational institution.
Meanwhile, in another splintered narrative, Doctor Minor (Sean Penn) is a mentally troubled man plagued by paranoia who accidentally shoots and kills an innocent man while in the throes of mania He’s sentenced to a psychiatric facility where he undergoes treatment and tries to find peace as the guilt of his actions continue to weigh heavily upon his soul. The man’s widow, Eliza (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones”) becomes a focus for Doctor Minor, who attempts to try and help her by sending her money. At first she’s offended by the offer, but she struggles to find work and care for the half-dozen Dickensian moppets she calls children.
Professor Murray and his team begin to crumple under the weight of their massive undertaking, turning to crowd-sourcing to help chronicle words that will one day appear in their collection. When the troubled Doctor Minor learns of Professor Murray and his work, he begins to pour every minute of his day into finding citations of words. The act of one mentally ravaged man gives hope to Professor Murray that his dictionary can be completed. Eventually, a friendship is forged as Doctor Minor begins to slip more and more into the grips of madness.
“The Professor and the Madman” is an exceptionally uneven movie, which seems to come from the product of weak direction. Mel Gibson is beautifully reserved as the cerebral and passionate Professor Murray, while Sean Penn growls and shouts his way through scenes like a third-year drama major who still believes the key to great acting involves shouting at the top of your lungs.
There are fleeting moments where Penn’s performance is natural and understated, but most of the time, the pendulum swings so wildly between “appropriate” and “mental,” it’s hard to take him seriously. It’s unfortunate because there are really nice moments and attempts at telling a complicated story about love, forgiveness and an unusual but powerful friendship.
I think I like the idea of “The Professor and the Madman” better than the movie itself; though, I didn’t end up hating the movie. It’s a strange cinematic anomaly and feels like a valiant effort suffering from a botched execution. In the hands of a more confident filmmaker, the story could have been more substantial. As is, it’s an interesting oddity but not a complete disaster—perhaps the cinematic definition of a “noble failure.”