The film begins in 1872. Professor James Murry [Mel Gibson] is appointed the head of a team to compile the Oxford dictionary of all English words and their definitions. For this mammoth task, members of the public in England and the colonies are asked to contribute. As one pompous member of this overseeing committee asks 'ordinary members of the public?' To the amazement of Murry, letters are sent from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum from Doctor William Chester Minor [Sean Penn]. He has been incarcerated for killing an innocent man, believing he was trying to kill him. A friendship develops between the two men with extraordinary results. Minor, over the next 20 years, submits over 10,000 words.
The original brief was to gather up to 6,400 words over a period of 5 years to be included in 4 volumes. In fact, the final dictionary consisted of 400,000 words in 10 volumes taking 47 years. Murry, a Scotsman, Minor, an American, both died before completion. It is being constantly revised to this day.
The film is based on a true story, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, written by Simon Winchester in 1998. Mel Gibson bought the film rights that year. 20 years later, filming was started. He wanted to take the part of Murry, so Safinia [Apocalyto] started directing in 2016. It wasn't released until 2019 due to various legal issues.
This isn't a dry story of these two lexicalists. The humanity of Gibson is stamped on this exceptional film. It has an emotional texture that is easy to identify with. The filmgoer is reminded of our world in a special way. Love is the overriding theme. Hate turns to friendship then love. The wife [played by Natalie Dormen] and family of the man killed are supported by Minor's pension. It is stacked however with questionable behaviour by the jailors at Crowthorne. On one hand, he is granted many privileges to enable him to do his work for Murry. This is juxtaposed to against misguided barbaric treatments for his misdiagnosed condition.
The dialogue between Murry and Minor is difficult to hear - editing could have fixed this problem. Great Donegal tweed suits are worn by Murry, almost a cloth of the past. The story will stay with you - it packs a punch, something that Gibson manages to do time and time again. Take no notice of the critics - this is a great movie.