Saturday, May 11, 2019


(Ireland/France/Iceland - 2019)

Directed by P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Written by Todd Komarnicki and P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane, Ioan Gruffudd, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Irvine, David O'Hara, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Fox, Lars Brygmann, Bryan Murray, Sean Duggan, Olivia McKevitt, Brendan Patricks, Shane Noone. (Unrated, 124 mins)

A longtime dream project that Mel Gibson's had on the backburner since purchasing the movie rights to Simon Winchester's book when it was released in 1998, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN ultimately became a nightmare of behind-the-scenes clashes and multiple lawsuits. Gibson began developing it as far back as 2001, when the great John Boorman (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR) was set to write and direct. That fell apart and Boorman's script was reworked in 2007 by Todd Komarnicki (SULLY), with Luc Besson attached to direct, but that was right around the time that Gibson's traffic stop and other offscreen problems essentially made him persona non grata in Hollywood for at least the next decade. Nine years later, with numerous international financiers, Gibson finally got THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN going with a new script by his friend and APOCALYPTO collaborator Farhad Safinia, who would also be making his directing debut. It was near the end of filming in Ireland in 2016 that disagreements began to develop between Gibson/Safinia and Voltage Pictures head Nicolas Chartier, when the pair asked for an additional $2.5 million for five additional days to shoot some scenes that they insisted had to be done on location at Oxford University (Trinity College was filling in for Oxford until then). Chartier rejected the request, telling them that they were already behind schedule and over the $25 million budget, so Trinity in Dublin would have to suffice.

Believing the film wouldn't be complete without these Oxford-shot scenes, Gibson told Chartier that Safinia wasn't being permitted to sufficiently finish the film. Gibson sued Voltage Pictures for breach of contract, claiming the film wasn't completed and he was guaranteed final cut, with Safinia also suing, claiming copyright infringement, accusing Voltage of never finalizing his contract, thus "his" script (which still contained some of Boorman's and Komarnicki's work) was never officially handed over to them. When Voltage released a statement accusing Gibson and Safinia of trying to "hijack the movie," Safinia sued for defamation. A judge ruled in favor of Voltage all around, and when Safinia's planned 160-minute film was whittled down to 124 minutes with neither Gibson nor Safinia's input, Gibson unsuccessfully tried to prevent it from being screened for potential distributors. These lawsuits kept the film on the shelf over 2017 and 2018 until a settlement was reached in early 2019, with Gibson removing his producer credit and any mention of his Icon Productions company. Safinia also successfully petitioned to have his name removed as director and co-writer, with credit now going to the non-existent "P.B. Shemran." Also absent is any mention of Boorman, still credited as a co-writer in initial press releases, in festival reviews, and on IMDb, but whose name is nowhere to be found on the released film. A troubled production, for sure, but there was a time when a prestige period piece starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn would've been one of the most anticipated films of its year instead of one that gets a buried on VOD like a state secret by lowly, Redbox-ready Vertical Entertainment, with seemingly everyone involved actively distancing themselves from what sounds less like a battle of artistic differences and more like an alpha-male pissing contest.

With that kind of chaotic backstage melodrama, you'd think THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN would be a folly of category five shitstorm proportions along the lines of LONDON FIELDS, another recent film left unreleased for several years due to endless litigation. It's a handsomely-produced period piece with meticulous production design that's often beautiful to look at and undeniably sincere in its approach, and while this Gibson-disowned version has some all-too-obvious red flags for post-production discord, it has other problems for which Gibson and Safinia should probably be held accountable. An account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN focuses on Prof. James Murray (Gibson), a Scottish autodidact and linguist and self-taught expert in over a dozen languages, who successfully lobbies the powers that be at Oxford to entrust him with the task of compiling every word in the English language and its origin into a comprehensive, epic volume ("We are about to embark on the greatest adventure our language has ever known!" he declares). He estimates it'll take five years, but the project soon becomes too daunting, even with research assistants Henry Bradley (Ioan Gruffudd) and Charles Hall (Jeremy Irvine). It also places a strain on his family, with wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) dutifully supporting him but truthfully not very enthused about moving their large family to a smaller home as Murray obsesses over his all-consuming project. The OED hits a brick wall, not helped by sneering publisher Philip Lyttleton Gell (Laurence Fox, conveying the erudite pomposity that his dad James and uncle Edward have projected so masterfully throughout their long careers) and supercilious Oxford board member Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews), both of whom deem Murray's self-education dubious and a dishonor to the university ("I wonder if it's time to ease our gentle Scotsman off his little perch," Jowett harumphs).

Realizing it will take much longer than five years to complete the dictionary, Murray comes up with the idea of having a "dictionary by democracy," asking the general public to contribute words and origins, with Murray and his assistants determining the validity of the info provided (a pre-Wikipedia of sorts). Their largest selection of entries comes from an unexpected source: Dr. William Chester Minor (Penn, in his first feature film since 2015's THE GUNMAN), an American expat, paranoid schizophrenic and PTSD-afflicted Civil War vet being held at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a married father of six that he mistook for a wartime enemy. Minor is also a gifted surgeon and intellectual who earned reading privileges in the asylum after saving the life of an injured guard. He also feels remorse for what he's done and offers his military pension to his victim's widow Eliza (Natalie Dormer), who reluctantly accepts after briefly turning to prostitution to support her children. She begins to visit Minor in the asylum, he teaches her to read, and she slowly comes around to forgiving him after witnessing the extent of his mental illness. Dr. Murray visits and befriends Minor as well, which causes friction with the Oxford board when he insists that a known murderer be lauded as a major OED contributor.

Frequently heavy-handed and filled with barely-concealed allusions to Gibson's own personal quest for redemption, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN benefits from his solid, committed performance, but almost everything else is miscalculated to varying degrees. As in Komarnicki's script for SULLY, the film needs a villain where there really isn't one, so Gell and Jowett are there to undermine Murray and stonewall the OED at every turn for no legitimate reason at all aside from manufactured drama. Likewise at the asylum, the kindly and benevolent Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) suddenly does everything short of twirl a mustache while maniacally cackling to make Minor's life a living hell, starting with cutting off visits from Murray and Eliza and eventually barbaric forms of "therapy" like violently-induced vomiting that he blames on "catalepsy." Maybe some of this was explained in the excised 40-odd minutes of footage, but as presented here, Minor's deteriorating condition (starting with a self-castration) lacks a proper buildup. Not helping matters is a wildly overacting Penn, who's been given carte blanche to gorge on a buffet of scenery by Safinia and Gibson, who also seriously bungle the time element. There is one major instance where the blame can obviously be laid on some sloppy editing in post, as evidenced when Eliza's daughter slaps a white-bearded Minor, who's next seen in his room shouting "Look what you've done!" and his beard is suddenly dark brown, making it almost certain that the scene doesn't belong where Voltage's editors have placed it. But elsewhere, it becomes a huge distraction when Penn's Minor seems to be the only person who ages over the course of the film, set from 1872 to 1910. With a big, bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Gibson looks exactly the same from start to finish, as does everyone else and, save for the final shot at a Murray family gathering, neither Murray's nor Eliza's kids ever grow up as the story progresses and the decades pass. There's also some extensive Minor voiceover in letters he sends to Murray and it's clearly not Penn's voice reciting it. These goofs and haphazard stitches aside, what's here is a compelling story. Penn seems to keep himself in check in his initial scenes with Gibson (who is really good here), and the film also offers nice supporting turns from Eddie Marsan as a sympathetic asylum guard and Steve Coogan as Murray's biggest supporter on the Oxford board. But this is a compromised work that represents the vision of an executive producer doing damage control, and not that of the producer-star who spent a decade-and-a-half trying to get it made and was perhaps too close to it for his--and the film's--own good.

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