A duet and a dictionary
The teacher: a neat, graying beard, clear eyes, a loving, determined husband and father. The doctor: shaggy beard; often crazy eyes; plagued by terrible memories, hallucinations and guilt. The two men’s parallel stories – unlikely, but true – merge in 1870s London in an attempt to create the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
The professor and the madman, a 2019 film available on streaming platforms, is not a simple recap of historical events, but a deep and emotional drama uplifting God’s grace, mercy and redemption in the lives of complex characters. He also uses language in a deep and often humorous way. If you like a good story with heroic but flawed characters, this will appeal to you. If you enjoy the game and the accuracy of English words, you will get an extra bonus.
James Murray (Mel Gibson) is a Scottish autodidact, an accomplished self-taught teacher in over 20 languages and dialects who loves words, their meanings and their origins. Because the Oxford University academic delegation is desperate to create a comprehensive lexicon of the English language after 20 years of failure, its members reluctantly agree to Murray, illiterate and unconventional, to lead a new effort. Murray’s enthusiasm is limitless, but first he wants his wife’s support: “If I’m going to fashion a book, I’m going to need a spine. She inspires him and strengthens him.
The film opens by introducing Dr William Minor (Sean Penn), a retired Civil War surgeon who flees to England, believing that a murderous deserter from the army is after him. In his delusions, Minor shoots and kills the wrong man and is sentenced to an insane criminal asylum.
When Murray recruits volunteers across England to bring words and quotes to his etymological research, Minor joins the quest from his asylum room. With passionate reason, he gleans words and phrases from the books that line his walls, contributing over 10,000 dictionary entries.
Murray finally meets Minor on the falsely serene asylum grounds. Seeing his chains, Murray realizes that Minor is not a doctor there, but a patient, but befriends him.
Despite his madness, Minor arouses sympathy and admiration. He frees an asylum keeper from a crushing door. He bequeaths all his property to his victim’s wife and teaches her to read. Yet, as Inspector Javert de Wretched, his tormented soul cannot grasp the concept of grace. His struggle leads to troubling moments involving self-punishment and tortured treatment by the asylum director, earning him an R rating. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
A masterfully filmed unusual tale, the film’s conversations and dimensional relationships make it memorable. You may even find yourself looking for words like Assembly.