The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman (Farhad Safinia [as P.B. Shemran], 2019) wr. Farhad Safinia [as P.B. Shemran] & Todd Komarnicki; Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marson, Jennifer Ehle

The Book

The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words is a book by Simon Winchester that was first published in England in 1998. It was retitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in the United States and Canada.

The Film

The film is about James Murray (Gibson), who in 1879 began compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. He was not a 'professor' - except in the vague American sense in which everyone who teaches at a university is so called. He struggled with the Delegates (the overseeing committee), among other things because he had no degree at all, tho he was a very impressive autodidact. Later, the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters - or maybe Laws (LLD).

The madman is W. C. Minor (Penn), a medical doctor who submitted over 10,000 entries for the OED while he was undergoing 'treatment' ( = torture) at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for having killed a man (tho the wrong one).

There was a dispute late in the shoot between two production companies, Gibson's Icon Productions and Voltage Pictures. As a result, some scenes set in Oxford were not shot, and the star and the director walked away from the film, playing no part in its editing or promotion. The film was released with an invented name for the director. It is a shoddy film, and will make no money.

This is a film I really wanted to see, being a person who's keenly interested in words. I read the book some years ago, and don't remember Dr Minor being a particularly tormented person - except in the matter of sex. The most memorable event in the book is the doctor cutting off his own penis. (I would have been happier not to have known that.) This is conveyed without too much fuss in the film - tho there is plenty of fuss from Penn about just about everything else.

But let's start with what's good about the film: Mel Gibson. ... That's it. Nothing else is any good. Sean Penn doesn't seem to be directed at all. Most of the time I couldn't understand what he was mumbling. And the rest of it he was shrieking about his mad fantasies. He's quite a lot like Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, not only in acting way over the top, but also in the physical discomfort he allowed himself to be put through. In this case we see the actor being forced to vomit again and again - and then photographed - God knows why. Sean Penn is a dead loss - except for the scenes in the middle of the film where is in control, and producing research material for the OED like an intelligent machine. (Which, come to think of it, is probably the way it is actually produced now - by an intelligent machine reading texts and noting changing word usage.)

There is far too much music in the film, as if the makers were trying to paper over the cracks in the awful dialogues. In particular, there is a very long song, sung with intrusive lyrics which make it hard to hear any dialogue. I have no idea what the lyrics were about, so missed both them and the dialogue. Probably no great loss.

There's a totally fictitious subplot about the relationship between the murderer and the widow of the man he killed. This makes the film run for more than two hours, when it could have been over in 90 minutes without it. But it gives Penn excuses for even more histrionics.


Here's my hypothesis (and that's all it is) about the way the making of this film came to a bad end. Mel Gibson is a wealthy man who is given to some mad enthusiasms. One of them was Apocalypto. The writer on that, with Mel, was a young man from Iran called Farhad Safinia, who has very limited experience in cinema.The Professor and the Madman is his first attempt at direction, and I think it might be his last.

Farhad Safinia>

Given the ridiculous script (that Safinia partly/mostly? wrote), and the huge amount of unwieldy material in the can, as filming was drawing to a close, I think it dawned on Voltage Pictures that they were about to try to promote a turkey, and didn't want to go on sending good money down the toilet after bad, so they virtually stopped production.

I think it's also possible Safinia himself also realised that he simply couldn't do the job of pulling it altogether, and took advantage of the money dispute as an excuse to walk away from the project - as if it wasn't his fault. (Of course it's also possible that he has so little nous that he thought he was maintaining his artistic integrity, but I prefer to think that he knew what was really going on. He just couldn't handle it.)

Mel was right in there, of course, watching the rushes each day, and came to the same conclusion as everyone else. But he had specially chosen Safinia for this project, and he may have seen it as the right thing to do - to walk away together with him - no matter how bitterly he must have been disappointed, given that he had been thinking about this project for twenty years, and given how good he is in the film.

Australian release

Don Groves writes in IF: 'Transmission Films pre-bought Farhad Safinia’s The Professor and the Madman long before Gibson’s Icon Productions and the producer Voltage Pictures sued and counter-sued each other 2017 in a dispute over creative decision-making.
A settlement was reached in April 2019 for the film featuring an encounter between Gibson as self-educated Scottish linguist and scholar James Murray and Sean Penn as Oxford and Yale-trained doctor and war veteran William Chester Minor, who was imprisoned for killing a man he thought was chasing him.
Gibson said: “This was a labour of love for the entire creative team and it is unfortunate for all concerned that this film was never finished as written. The Voltage version of this film is a bitter disappointment to me.”
In light of all that, the Australian opening of $131,000 on 99 screens and $232,000 with festival screenings was no surprise.'

References and Links

IMDb page
Wikipedia page for the film
Wikipedia book for the book

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 21 February, 2020 | Now: 26 February, 2020