The Professor and the Madman – for the love of words.

Director: Farhad Safinia (as P.B. Sherman)
Writers: John Boorman, Todd Komarnicki, Farhad Safinia & Simon Winchester (author)
Stars: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn & Natalie Dormer

The Professor and the Madman is a biographical drama set in the 19th century Ireland.  The movie is based on the 1998 book The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words written by Simon Winchester.

Have you ever wondered how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be?  Who wrote it?  How was it decided which words to include and their meaning?

This is about recording the evolution of meaning.”

James Augustus Henry Murray (eventually knighted Sir James Augustus Henry Murray), portrayed by Gibson is assigned the daunting task of gathering all the words in the English language, their origin, translation and meaning and compile what we now know as the Oxford English Dictionary. To assist with this enormous assignment, he enlists the help of the public. The public is asked to submit words to be included in the OED, along with quotations from books, newsprint, bibles and any other sources of literature.   

While being held at a psychiatric hospital, the brilliant, but very disturbed, William Chester Minor (Penn) comes across the invitation and devotes most of his time (and eventually his life) reading, researching, cataloging and submitting words and quotations to Murray and his team.  As such, Minor becomes one of the OED’s most effective and significant contributors.

Disclosure: I have not read The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, but the film is brilliant.

The characters are well thought-out, interesting and likable.  The Victorian era is profoundly illustrated through dark, somewhat gloomy and cold spaces for those lower-; and middle-class families suffering poverty and hardship; contrasted with rich, warm and comfortable settings depicting the educated and upper-class society.  Sean Penn truly shines as The Madman and I cannot think of a better actor for Minor’s role.  Penn portrays calm, intelligence, anguish, wretchedness, lunacy and love in such an intense way, you feel it as if you were in the room with him.  Mel Gibson compliments Penn’s character with consistency, stoicism and true Gibson-style perseverance.  Seeing them together on-screen, makes you want to yell: “You can do this, just keep going!!”.


Book lovers: you’ll love this film with its passion for words and it’s beautiful and historical books #bookshelfappreciation. Minor’s ingenious cataloging system will make you want to unpack your bookshelf, read every single book and start your own cataloging system.

“James Murray: Who’s she?
Dr. William Chester Minor: The impossible.
James Murray: The more impossible, the greater the love. “

The technical stuff:

Genre: Biography, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Run time: 2h 4min
Parental Guidance: No sex or nudity, moderate graphic violence and gore and mild profanity.