There's something to be said about the world of book-to-movie style films. While this film is an adaptation of 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne' by Simon Winchester, you wouldn't be remiss to assume that it is, in fact, an adaptation of the Oxford Dictionary.
It's 1879 and James Murray (Mel Gibson, 'Apocalypo', 'What Women Want') has been tasked by the scholars at Oxford to catalogue every single word in the English Language. He is stuck in his work until he starts to receive letters from a Dr William Chester Minor (Sean Penn, 'Mystic River', 'Milk') who revolutionises his process and helps him with his more difficult etimology. However, Dr Minor is, unbeknownst to Murray, in a mental asylum, suffering from PTSD from the American Civil War.
'THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN' TRAILER 2
Just a real thrill ride.
My main problem with this film is that the real antagonist is British prejudice. They don't trust Murray because he's a Scot, and they discredit him further when it's discovered his associate is in an asylum. But other than that, there is very little conflict to keep things interesting.
But then who would have thought a film about how the dictionary was made would be dull?
Sorry, that was bad. Everyone would think that.
There's a little more conflict around Natalie Dormer's (TV's 'Game of Thrones', 'The Hunger Games' franchise) Eliza Merrett, but this is quickly forgiven and moved on from. That said, the cast does an admirable job with the source material they are given, and this cast is a veritable who's who of British cinema - of notable mention is Steve Coogan, who as ever is faultless.
Who would have thought a film about how the dictionary was made would be dull?
There's just something about 'The Professor and the Madman' that makes you sort of go "oh yeah, that's a film I guess," but doesn't leave you changed or particularly impacted. It's a somewhat interesting concept, but one that feels would have worked better as a 45-minute documentary. The score, written by Bear McCreary ('Battlestar Galactica', 'Black Sails'), has a very 'Game of Thrones' vibe with a strong lean on melodic cello. This in itself isn't a bad thing, it's just impossible not to make the comparison and sadly for McCreary, everyone's sentiments towards GoT has shifted towards the negative.
In all likelihood, you will leave this film with a little more of an understanding of how the dictionary came to be, and a little more resentment for Gibson (one of the producers) for pushing this project to happen, regardless of its lacklustre subject. It's pleasant enough, but it's clear England must produce a certain number of period dramas a year and 2019 was just about to fall under the quota - thank god for the dictionary movie.
Usually with book-to-film adaptations, there is a spike in sales of said book - I can't imagine anyone rushing out to buy a dictionary after this though.