Somewhere in the progressively more distant past I read the book on which 2019’s The Professor and the Madman is based. I snatched it off the shelf of Barnes & Noble one day, or whatever bookstore I was in, having had the imaginative title catch my eye. Like the movie, everything is in the main title. Even after reading author Simon Winchester’s full headline, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009), I plunged ahead with my purchase anyway. Yes, you read that correctly. The giant book of definitions that comes in several volumes and you need an entire shelf to contain apparently has quite the back story. The 2019 film is its dramatized cousin.
The second half of The Professor and the Madman is the quite apparently insane American Dr. William Chester Minor (Sean Penn), and that is with whom the film opens. He is roaring through the streets of London with a revolver, thinking that someone is after him. Believing to have found that person, he shoots and kills Jack Merrett (Luke Harman) as his victim enters the door of his home and in front of his wife Ezra (Natalie Dormer) and their children. However, Dr. Minor is acquitted of the actual murder charges by reason of insanity. Nonetheless, he is remanded to the care of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for treatment of his condition. Meanwhile, in a far quainter part of Merry Ol’ England, James Murray (Mel Gibson) is approached by the famous Oxford University to begin the process of putting together a comprehensive repository of every word in the English language. This involves not only a rendering of their meanings, but where a word was first used, subsequent iterations since, and its modern usage. This means reading every book written in the language, literally. Some of contemporaries at Oxford are dubious of the crazy Scotsman, thinking his plan too burdensome to ever be completed. They also see Murray as an outsider, lacking their credentials despite his evident talent as a scholar of language. They go ahead with the project anyway despite some misgivings, and the naysayers seem correct as they struggle with apparently simple words like “art” and “approve.” This is where Dr. Minor proves vital. While the dictionary work begins, he settles into life in the asylum, which is run basically like a prison. Though still evidently disturbed, particularly by the murder that landed him there, Dr. Minor ingratiates himself with his caretakers. When he is able to save the life of one of the guards by performing an emergency amputation after the gate falls on his leg, the warden of the facility, Dr. Richard Brayn (Stephen Dillane), affords greater privileges to Dr. Minor. In the name of therapy, he is given access to his book collection. Another aspect of his recovery are visits from Ezra. At first, she is reluctant to come, but when Dr. Minor insists that she have his pension from the United States’ Army for his service during the Civil War, it is the beginning of a beautiful reconciliation. One day, she brings him a book, and from it slips an advertisement from Murray seeking people to volunteer words for the dictionary. Though this call is made from the start, the project had been stalled and pressures begin mounting for him to make progress. Being in an asylum with little else to do, Dr. Minor submits a flood of entries that move the dictionary forward exponentially. Murray is grateful to Dr. Minor, and a friendship forms between them. It should not come as a surprise, though, that things are on shaky ground. As things develop between Ezra and Dr. Minor, she brings her children to meet the man responsible for the death of their father. Dr. Brayn believes this will be therapeutic. Yet when Dr. Minor stands before Ezra’s oldest daughter, Clare (Olivia McKevitt), she cannot let go of her grief and slaps Dr. Minor across the face. This spirals for Dr. Minor, especially when Ezra tells him that they can no longer see each other. Eventually it becomes too much for him, and this new trauma along with Dr. Brayn’s experimental treatments leave him catatonic. Murray wants to help his friend, but when Oxford discovers Dr. Minor’s identity, they are none too pleased that such a person played a large role in the making of a book that bears their name. They seek to take Murray off of his beloved project, but his friends are able to keep him in place. At the same time, Murray works to have Dr. Minor released, citing his so-called treatment as the veritable torture that it is. He receives help from Ezra, and eventually Dr. Minor is sent back home. Though Murray’s role changes, he is allowed to continue to work on the dictionary. As the film notes at the close, though, the undertaking that Murray originally believed would take seven years had only reached “T” by the time he died in 1915. He started in the mid-nineteenth century.
While there is certainly a lot of dramatization of actual events that go on in The Professor and the Madman, whether or not it is totally historically accurate is not what I would like to talk about at this time. There are liberties taken, such as the relationship between Dr. Minor and Ezra, but they are not the focus of the film. Instead, what it searches for is meaning. It is not unique in this endeavor, cinematically speaking, but it does naturally lend itself to this kind of exploration given the subject matter. It should be noted, too, that Murray is a man of Faith. The cynical among you will no doubt say that figures since Mel Gibson is one of the more famous Christians around. Whatever you think of him, I still enjoy scenes like when he prays for a miracle to move the dictionary forward, and then gets it in the form of Dr. Minor’s submissions. Regardless Divine Providence, Murray’s aim is to record the evolution of meaning. That phrase, particularly since it is said at a time when science was seen as beginning to replace the so-called superstition of religion, says a great deal. Those who are against Murray treat a comprehensive dictionary as what Murray proposes as folly, and that only certain words are fit enough to survive in the modern world. It is an etymological Darwinism, if you will. Murray, obviously, sees it differently, and some of his defense of his undertaking is poetic to this Catholic’s ears. The dictionary, for him, is about the pure joy of learning, which he refers to as freedom. He goes on to compare reading to chasing after God. There is so much beauty in language, though anymore we seem to want to debase it with curse words. While I cannot say I am completely innocent of letting a foul word slip now and then, I also see a lot of wisdom in referring to those idioms collectively as “curses.” Thank God for prayer.
If you are not interested in history or the origin of the Oxford English Dictionary, watch The Professor and the Madman for the performances. Sean Penn is great, a phrase I do not say lightly given how little with which I agree with him. Heck, even Mel Gibson is good, though that could be because they let him do a Scottish accent. He did win Best Picture and Best Director for Braveheart (1995), after all. The scenes of Dr. Minor in the asylum are difficult, so I would not recommend it to younger audiences. For the rest of us, it is a solid piece of cinema with a good heart.