I accidentally stumbled into a smart movie.
One thing How About Notflix viewers may not know about me is that I own a lot of Redbox discs. A lot of them, at least two bakers dozen by my last count. Now the reason I own a lot of Redbox discs is because I go grocery shopping maybe once every six weeks. When I’m at the grocery store I will stop by the Redbox machine on the way out and see what they have in the $3.99 section. If the title of the movie and cover catch my attention, I buy it. I might walk out with more than one disc.
Another thing you may not know is that I’ve been on a bit of a Mel Gibson kick in recent months. I’ve always been a fan of Gibson’s films even if I wouldn’t quite endorse the man himself. Mel Gibson has a hell of a charm to him, and in recent years that charm has transformed with his newfound facial hair. Boss Level was a treat and last Christmas’ Fatman worked far better than any film on that level should. More on those coming.
But I was tricked in a way into watching an intelligent recent Mel Gibson movie with The Professor and the Madman. Once again I don’t read the summaries before I buy these discs.
The Professor and the Madman is a 2019 biographical drama starring Mel Gibson as James Murray and Sean Penn as Dr. William Chester Minor. James Murray was the editor of what became the Oxford dictionary. WCM meanwhile is an insane American who murders a man in cold blood because he thinks the guy was out to kill him, then gets sent to the insane asylum. When Murray puts out a call to action for the public to assist in building the dictionary, Minor is more than happy to oblige.
The film is a passion project of Gibson’s gone wrong. Mel Gibson and director Farhad Safinia unsuccessfully sued over final cut privileges and other production problems, and ultimately refused to promote the film. Safinia isn’t even credited as director, with his name replaced by a pseudonym. Both men have since distanced themselves from the film.
It’s always good to see a list of known people doing intelligent work. Natalie Dormer of the Game of Thrones fame plays Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man WCM murders who visits him out of anger and eventually comes to understand his broken mind. Edward Marsan shows up as a prison guard, being born to play the role of old British constable with a big mustache. David O’hara is here, as well as Steve Coogan.
The plot is enjoyable as long as you’re not expecting 100% historical accuracy, and are willing to accept that character changes were made likely with the goal of pleasing the actors and giving others an arc. For instance the real plot where WCM castrated himself to stop hallucinations of molesting children probably wasn’t something Sean Penn wanted to be attached to. So instead it turns into a painful subplot of WCM’s growing love toward the widow of the man he murdered.
As far as historical accuracy goes, the main plot is mostly on point. The Oxford Dictionary was written with the substantial help of an insane murderer. The rest is mostly for decoration. I wasn’t able to find any evidence that WCM taught the real Eliza Merrett how to read, so I have to assume that is part of the historical embellishment for drama and because Natalie Dorner wanted something to do.
The film feels like it had a point and was butchered in editing, which makes sense because Gibson and Safinia had a goal and were cut out of the editing process. While I enjoyed it overall, the ebb and flow feels about as schizophrenic as WCM himself. There are rather dramatic shifts in tone as the movie swaps between historical medical drama, unrequited romance story, and serious documentary about the Oxford dictionary.
For a two hour film, The Professor and the Madman kept me not on the edge of my seat, but still quite interested in seeing where the film would end up. The plot enhancements won’t appeal to history buffs, nor will Mel Gibson’s continued mangling of a Scottish accent.