Most of us have or have had an Oxford English Dictionary. The Professor and the Madman relays the fascinating story about how the Oxford Dictionary came to be compiled during the mid-nineteenth century.
Professor James Murray, (played by Mel Gibson) is tasked with the enormous job to edit the floundering English dictionary begun by Oxford University’s Fredrick Furnivall (played by Steve Coogan). Murray is given seven years and seeks help from the public across the Commonwealth by placing notes inside books requesting help with words and their origins.
William Minor, (played by Sean Penn) an ex-soldier having been a surgeon in the American Civil War is in a psychiatrist hospital in England. He’s there because he killed a man who he believed was someone haunting him from his days in the war. He receives a book and rises to the task to provide help to Murray by providing over 10,000 entries.
Because Minor helped save a guard’s life, he is allowed privileges one of which is bringing his books into the Institution. His brilliant mind is astonishing even to Murray who fights hard to get Minor’s work acknowledged against vast opposition by the University. Minor tries to make amends with the murdered man’s wife who is left with six children and a relationship of forgiveness evolves.
Based on fact it is an incredible story of two brilliant minds coming together to accomplish a monumental task in a short amount of time. In further research I found the dictionary actually took seventy years to compile. Astonishing.
Mel Gibson bought the rights to the book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester in 1998 and the film was caught up in legal battles over creative differences.
The way mental health was dealt with in the 1800’s was hair raising and was covered very well in the film. Sean Penn was amazing as the anguished and haunted Minor.
The only difficulty I had was in the Scottish accents by Gibson, which was incredibly authentic but so much so that it was hard to understand some of the dialogue. Likewise, I found the same for Penn. This could well have been the quality of the sound in the movie theatre I visited rather than the quality of the sound of the film. Nevertheless, it wasn’t bad enough that I didn’t know what was going on.
It’s a very enjoyable movie and I learnt a lot. For all of you word lovers, check it out and for everyone see it anyway. It opens Feb 20 in Australia.