Mad Ravings On… Movies

The Professor and the Madman (2019)

This film was recommended by our cable provider’s On Demand service based on another film recently watched in the wee hours of a night.  And, based on its description alone, it might have easily been dismissed as little more than a sleep aid: “Professor James Murray begins work compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid 19th century, and receives over 10,000 entries from a patient at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dr. William Minor.”  Upon learning the cast includes both Mel Gibson and the immeasurably talented Sean Penn, however (with the latter as the mental patient), its intrigue level rises.  And, when it opens with a brutal murder, committed on the basis of mistaken identity by Penn’s character, sleep quickly becomes a state long forgotten… one that, as the rest of the film unfolds, may well threaten to elude  the viewer for quite some time to come.

As that introduction implies, this is a difficult film to watch at times (one truly for mature audiences only), and one that challenges the viewer on many levels.  In addition to presenting material that prompts strongly conflicting emotions, the verisimilitude provided by the exacting Scottish dialect of Gibson, and the sometimes muddled mutterings of Penn, creates a need to keep the remote handy for frequently rewinding passages that seem unintelligible on first listen.  But, it’s well worth the effort.  For, in addition to the superb acting one expects (and which is, indeed, delivered — by not only Gibson and Penn, but the supporting cast as well), the film further benefits from a beautifully written script, one that includes welcome touches of gentle humor to balance heartrending despair, and which is filled with wonderfully meaningful and memorable lines — so many of these, in fact, that the film in its entirety could be described as a love letter to words themselves… and a reminder of the power they’re capable of carrying.  Ultimately, however, it sets in motion actions no words can fully comprehend or express, and which help to define both madness and redemption through the even greater powers of friendship, forgiveness, and love.

I read that many critics were less than kind to this film, and that its box office release returned only a small fraction of the budget invested in its creation.  Not only is this a shame for the sake of those who so painstakingly brought its world and inhabitants to life — particularly Sean Penn, who most certainly deserved an Oscar nod for his role — but also, for the sake of audiences who missed out on a rare and wholly worthwhile experience.  Thankfully, because cable TV and various other outlets now prevent a short theatrical run from relegating films to permanent obscurity, this “hidden gem of cinema” can still be quite easily unearthed.

This review has been written in the hope you’ll do just that.