The Professor and the Madman from the Academy Award® winning producer of The Hurt Locker is set in the late 1800s. Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson), an unlikely self-educated linguist, scholar and unconventional candidate has been tasked by Oxford to catalogue every single word in the English Language; a mammoth task that Oxford itself had been wrestling with unsuccessfully. This biographical drama about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary under watchful eyes is also about a bond created between two geniuses, one a professor and the other collaborator, a Yale-trained Civil War doctor, now a mentally ill patient in an asylum.
The film opens with Dr W C Minor (Sean Penn), who believes someone is out to get him; he chases a man down laneways and guns him down during a manic episode in London 1872. Having shot the wrong man, he's incarcerated to the Broadmoor lunatic asylum for the criminally insane where he languishes between manic episodes and guilt for having killed the wrong man and thus leaving behind a widow with kids struggling to survive. He goes to great lengths for atonement. After receiving an invitation by chance when Murray enlists the help of English speakers across Britain, its colonies and America to send in definitions; Minor takes on the task to contribute to the project in the hope of keeping busy and sane.
A movie about words has been made interesting by two veterans of film. Penn is powerful as the madman and gives a good performance as a manic but also shows an emotional side with a gamut of expressive images that's mesmerising. In his madness, the nuances of hope, love and enormous guilt are touchingly expressed with great emotion. Gibson plays Murray the Scot with gusto, fighting prejudice all the way as the establishment works at discrediting him further when it's discovered his collaborator is in an asylum. Steve Coogan as dictionary founder Frederick Furnivall plays a small but touching important role of sacrifice. Of note is also kindly jailer Muncie (Eddie Marsan) who looks the other way after witnessing an act where Minor saves a young guards life.
The women are wasted in this film, especially Jennifer Ehle who plays Gibson's long-suffering, ever-supportive wife Ada. Natalie Dormer (from Game of Thrones) gets a slightly meatier role as the widow who abhors the madman who shot her husband, trying to find forgiveness in her heart. It may not hit the Oscars but it's a very watchable, engaging movie about a monumental task peppered with lunacy and redemption and a hint of love that holds your interest. It's also interesting to ponder if the superintendent Richard Brayn (Stephen Dillane) at the asylum is kind and understanding or if an experimental sadistic lunatic lurks within.