‘The Professor and the Madman’ movie review: Sean Penn is compelling in drama about the real-life story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was made

In the film based on Simon Winchester's bestselling novel 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne', great acting is let down by a weak second half

Nicola Chan |

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Mel Gibson (left) and Sean Penn star in 'The Professor and the Madman'.

The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating biographical drama about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the extraordinary friendship between its chief editor, and a volunteer named Dr W C Minor (Sean Penn).

Set in the mid 19th century, the thriller opens with Minor being sent to an asylum for the criminally insane after killing a man during a manic episode.

Meanwhile, Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is attempting to create the world’s most comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Realising it would take more than a century for him and his team to compile alone, Murray enlists the help of English speakers across Britain, its colonies, and America to send in definitions.

After receiving the invitation by chance, Minor decides to contribute to the project, hoping it might help keep him busy – and sane.

Adapted from Simon Winchester’s bestselling novel The Surgeon of Crowthorne, itself based on a true story, the film’s plot is deeply engaging. While the history of the OED already feels like the stuff of Hollywood, the personal struggles of the two geniuses who helped create it, and the bond between them, makes the storyline even richer.

Penn is compelling as a mentally ill patient struggling to deal with the guilt of his past actions. His portrayal of a man is psychological turmoil is sure to move viewers.

It’s a pity, however, that the film’s second half doesn’t seem as well-constructed as its first. A little more development would have made the film’s ending more impactful.

Despite the minor flaw, The Professor and the Madman is a very special historical thriller that will no doubt stay with audiences. Literature and language lovers won’t want to miss it.

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