Even today, one of the largest physical books in a library is the all-purpose reference dictionary. Often out of date, it sits open to the page of the last user’s search. At one library I managed, this dictionary was vintage enough that the word “internet” didn’t exist. However, the words “perspicacious” and “femur” (with line drawing illustration) were represented.
A for-profit film production on the subject of the making of a dictionary is unusual. I’d like to celebrate a producer’s willingness to take on this kind of project. And so, my thanks to the producers of The Professsor and the Madman.
The film is a biographical exploration using the development of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary (OED) as the plot driver. Strong characters are provided by, among others, Mel Gibson, Natalie Dormer, Sean Penn, Jennifer Ehle and Steve Coogan. The movie story begins in London in 1872. However, the story starts in Oxford years before.
Chief editor James Murray (played by Mel Gibson), a non-degreed polyglot, is hired by Oxford University to get their sputtering dictionary project going. The dictum “every word” is the criteria for inclusion into the dictionary. Murray has a dedicated team tracking down sources of usage to ensure that the inclusion of each word is warranted.
Several scenes take place at the office/workroom in which the OED is edited. In one scene, two of Murray’s staff agonize over their inability to find any usage of the word “approve” in the 17th or 18th centuries. One staffer laments “And we’re only on A. What about B, C, D, E…” before tossing index cards about the room in despair. The calm Murray, the professor of the film, settles him down, then offers to his clerk that he consult Milton’s Paradise Lost to find a hiding usage of the word.
William Chester Minor (played by Sean Penn), an American doctor, is the madman. A tormented soul with the baggage of field surgery during the American Civil War, Minor’s delusions cause him to murder an innocent man. A madman and a professor – both with a passion for the written word.
Much of the film depicts scenes from Minor’s life in custody and Murray’s visitations to help his talented OED contributor. The film also presents the interactions of the Oxford board overseeing the OED project. An ambitious Oxford board member conspires with another board member in an effort to replace Murray. Minor and his murder victim’s widow and family bond. Murray’s wife shows increasing skepticism for the never ending OED project. Murray spends long nights at work. Scandal is reported.
Through it all, director P. B. Shemran (Farhad Sarfinia) holds a reverence for the written and the spoken word. In another scene, Murray and Minor play off one word after another – like dueling banjos. Consanguineous word fellows, these two.
For viewers who enjoy watching the queen’s English on educated display, consider The Professor and the Madman. Worldcat finds the closest copy of the film on dvd in the collection of the Huntsville-Madison County Alabama Public Library. The film is also available via Netflix and Kanopy.
A critical review from Encore.com: www.encorepub.com/learning-curve-the-professor-and-the-madman-is-exceptionally-uneven/ .
Images from Netflix.