The Professor and the Madman: An Intimate Biography of an Extraordinary Undertaking – Netflix Review

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn bring us the story of the creation of the Oxford dictionary.


William Minor (Sean Penn) is a former doctor who murders an innocent man, George Merrett (Shane Noone), while under the delusion that he’s being chased by a man seeking revenge. He is found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Broadmoor Hospital. Merrett’s wife, Eliza (Natalie Dormer), is left penniless with seven children. While in the asylum, Minor saves the life of a guard, leading another guard, Muncie (Eddie Marsan), to want to help him. Minor asks Muncie to help Eliza and to bring him books.

The beard shows the level of crazy.

At the same time, James Murray (Mel Gibson), an autodidact with a prolific knowledge of lexicology, is hired by Frederick Furnivall (Steve Coogan) to craft the Oxford dictionary after the previous commission had failed for twenty years. Murray decides that the only way to approach the project is to solicit quotes and definitions of words from the entirety of the English-speaking world and to edit the submissions. Minor finds one of Murray’s requests and dedicates his free time and library to the task of creating a massive number of entries. The two begin to correspond, with Murray initially not knowing that Minor is imprisoned for insanity, and the world is forever changed by their work.


I don’t think I could in good conscience begin this review without quickly reminding everyone that supporting art does not inherently mean supporting the artist. In this case, both Mel Gibson and Sean Penn have a number of incidents that do not exactly reflect well on their personal characters. Like, the domestic violence, racism, and occasional endorsement of dictators. Yes, that applies to both of them. In any case, I’m just saying that the fact that this was a good movie and that they’re both pretty good in it does not mean that I’m saying that I’m endorsing them personally at all. 

It takes a lot to win Oscars and still get blacklisted repeatedly.

Having said that, this actually wasn’t that great of a movie. It’s either too short or too long and it’s very weird that I can’t tell. It definitely drags at a number of points, but it also seems like there are a number of scenes that needed to be added to give some extra stakes to other scenes. For example, there is the weird subplot involving two of the people trying to get rid of Murray due to him taking too long to get the dictionary done, even though he’s apparently made more progress in two years than anyone has in decades. It’s designed to add an adversary and a ticking clock to the film, but it’s completely arbitrary and somewhat ridiculous. I know there were people advocating for a smaller dictionary in the real event, but the way the scenes between the “villains” play out is completely unconvincing. This is just a small example, but it adds like 15 pointless minutes to the film and is completely unnecessary. The film also spends very little on establishing time skips, so that the decade or so of the film passes very unevenly and without really properly showing the level of effort.

Some of the supporting characters get almost nothing to work with.

As to the leads, the performances are varied. Mel Gibson’s introduction as Murray is a reminder of why he was one of the most bankable stars for a decade. He has a level of gravitas that sells his character as a self-made man and unnatural genius. Sean Penn’s portrayal of the mentally ill Minor is captivating, but also so over-the-top at times that it borders on self-parody. Most of the supporting characters are great, including Jennifer Ehle as Murray’s wife who deals with her husband’s single-minded devotion with realistic frustration. Unfortunately, even decent acting doesn’t help too much.

I want the film where this is an immortal William Wallace in disguise.

Apparently, this film’s director, Farhad Safinia, took his name off of the film because the studio re-made it during the final cut. He and Gibson have both disowned the movie and refused to promote it. I’m not sure, therefore, how much of the trouble in the film is from bad directing and how much is from bad editing.

You’d think Gibson being a producer would have given him more authority.

Overall, though, it doesn’t matter much whose fault the flaws are, this story needs someone else to take a crack at it. It’s a great story and it’s a true one, but it’s not done properly in this outing.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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