Art-house movies and I have never really been what you’d call the best of friends.
Same goes with historical costume dramas.
So what was I thinking taking myself off to see THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, which, as it turns out, is both art-house movie and died-in-the-wool costume biopic – set in 19th century London?
What was I thinking? Quite a lot actually, and up to the point of the movie theatre lights going down in that time-honored, sped-up sun-set kind of way, it was all positive.
AND THEN THE FILM STARTED...
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is really two based-on-fact stories rolled into one. The first centers around the 70 year long project – begun in 1857 – of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. In real life this monumental task – the equivalent back in its day of mapping every star in the heavens – was helmed by Scottish schoolteacher and self taught linguist (he was fluent in more than a dozen languages) James Murray, played by Mel Gibson.
The second story concerns real-life American Army surgeon Dr Chester William Minor – played by Sean Penn. He spent 38 years in the infamous English mental asylum for the criminally insane Broadmoor. While incarcerated there he sent more than 10 000 submissions to James Murray for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.
A film about a dictionary compiler was always going to be a tough ask shaping it into something marketable and even mildly watchable for the general public. The inclusion of the numerous psychiatric institution scenes was an attempt to inject some drama and pathos, yet this film remains strangely lacking in energy.
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN manages to generate as much tension as a broken guitar string. It’s ability to generate emotion is likewise on a par with a 2am multi-folding-ladder info-commercial.
Every character with a speaking part is saddled with delivering speech-long, overly serious monologues that have you wishing time would somehow magically speed up. And it’s all set to a wearying, sappy soundtrack that alternates between full-on opera and a mega-blast from the strings section of the London Philharmonic.
Two hours with this movie felt like two days. Managing dutifully to avoid reading a single review before seeing the movie, I poured over a heap of them afterwards. “A film which ends up being only mildly more interesting than reading an actual dictionary” was a reoccurring lambasting quip from a number of paid opinion-givers.
Going into the movie I held genuine curiosity. After enduring 124 minutes of near unrelenting tedium, I came out with eyeballs feeling like this –
If all that sounds a bit harsh, I can agree – it feels harsh saying it and writing it. Though perhaps not as harsh as Mel Gibson unsuccessfully suing the production company in a valiant attempt to wrestle back creative control of the project, and thus saving it from the commercial and critical disaster it has ended up becoming.
Nor maybe as harsh as both Gibson’s and Sean Penn’s decision to abstain from doing any interviews to promote the movie, less they somehow convey the false impression that they in anyway approve of the final product.
I really wanted to like this movie. Yet I’ve concluded what would probably be far more to my liking is the 1998 book which the movie is based on. The Surgeon of Crowthorne was written by British author (and Oxford graduate) Simon Winchester, a journalist with more than three decades of experience.
As a final note I should add that perhaps I could have recognized the writing was on the wall with me and this movie long before I actually took my seat and the lights went dark. The theater I ventured to see THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN at (The Regal at Graceville) has history for me. Bad history.
The last time I lined up to buy a movie ticket there was 16 years ago. That sadly lackluster occasion also ended with the eyeballs madly spinning and the smelling salts having to be brought out to revive me. And before anyone tries telling me what a marvelous viewing spectacle the Bill Murray/ Scarlett Johansson movie LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) was, I say this…
Ps. Every cloud has a silver lining (except apparently the mushroom shaped ones which have a lining of Iridium and Strontium 90) so watching THE MADMAN AND THE PROFESSOR wasn’t a total loss.
Seeing this film set me on track to unearthing some pretty interesting facts and figures about the English language. You’ve borne the brunt already of my version of the madman. Now comes the Professor…
The English language passed the MILLION WORD mark back in 2009 (at 10:22am GMT on June 10th, to be precise).
As of this writing, there are currently 171 476 words in use in English.
The average adult knows the meanings of approximately 30 000 words.
3000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing. 1000 words will cover 90% of everyday writing.
The English language adds a new word every 98 minutes.
Arabic is a language reputed to have over 12 million words.
The word “dictionary” first came into the English lexicon in 1220.