Not often does a star of his own film go to court to prevent the release of said film, but then Mel Gibson has a habit of doing things his own way. Perhaps such a lost cause is one way of drumming up publicity for a topic not usually associated with cinematic appeal: the compiling of dictionaries. Or perhaps he really was aggrieved that a project documenting James Murray’s attempt at a first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was filmed not in Oxford but at Trinity College, Dublin.
Gibson and director Farhad Safinia lost that case, and now that we can make our own minds up as to whether this lack of authenticity was so heinous, we can truly say Gibson and Safinia needn’t have worried. Loosely adapting from Simon Winchester’s book The Surgeon of Crowthorne with the more evocative title of The Professor and the Madman, they have many more problems in a film that amounts to a two-hour-long definition of the word ‘strained’.
Gibson returns to his Scottish Braveheart brogue in telling the story of the brilliant, multilingual Murray (Gibson) and his unlikely collaboration with a convicted killer. Murray fought an uphill battle with a snobby academic establishment but ultimately won the right to assemble Oxford’s first dictionary with his plan to outsource the leg-work to the British people. This was a plan that apparently was best explained at dinner by writing it with soup on a napkin and passing it around the table, a gesture so silly that perhaps it justified the level of concern from the toffs.
Sure enough Murray uproots his family to Oxford and starts the mammoth undertaking. It’s expected to take years, even decades, but when it appears to be getting on top of Murray’s small team captive in his converted garden shed, something wonderful happens. Floods of words and citations and suggestions start to come in from a man called William Chester Minor (Sean Penn). What manner of man must this Minor character be to have time to send in 20,000 citations? An inmate of the Broadmoor lunatic asylum is what. Minor, formerly a doctor in the American civil war, was locked up for shooting an innocent man in a fit of delusional paranoia, and Murray’s dictionary has been something of a saviour for him.
While these men’s friendship and collaboration is an interesting enough basis for cinematic treatment, it makes up only one portion of a severely disjointed story that insists on broadening its scope well beyond its means. Villainous publishers scheme to unseat Murray, Steve Coogan is there looking slightly smug, Natalie Dormer has a highly speculative role as the widow of a man killed by Minor and is taught to read and love again, and Jennifer Ehle is Murray’s heart-of-gold wife, Ada, with something approaching but never reaching a narrative. Looking concerned for various half-explained reasons isn’t quite enough, though that’s hardly Ehle’s fault.
No one can doubt the significance of the OED’s thorough documentation of the world’s most unwieldy and sprawling language, but this film is hardly a fitting showcase for its legacy. The hastily inserted stock footage of Oxford University – perhaps added as an attempt to satisfy Gibson’s demands – does stick out in an otherwise handsomely shot period drama. But these are mere cracks compared to graver foundational problems: muddled plots, far-fetched romance and a soundtrack overwhelmingly and incessantly ‘inspirational’. When everything that is said is accompanied by enough orchestral oomph to suggest deep emotional catharsis, who is at fault: the composers or the screenwriters for not being clear enough?
At this point it’s hard to say to what extent this production is troubled by its editing-suite arguments. Safinia and Gibson eventually walked off the project, with the film then attributed to a fictitious director, PB Shemran, who interestingly also has a writing credit alongside actual writers Todd Kormanicki and John Boorman. Working under such conditions, the performances of the cast are serviceable enough in the circumstances, though Penn sails very close to the wind as the deeply troubled Minor. Then again, if this enthusiasm is an attempt to make up for a shortfall in quality elsewhere, his effort could be commended.
The Professor and the Madman is in cinemas from 20th February through Transmission.