The Professor and the Madman is based on the bestselling 1998 book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, but is never sure of its central premise

The Professor and the Madman (M)

3 stars

Although messy, overwrought, and plagued by years of creative and legal dispute, this tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary remains engaging thanks to the strength of the story on which the film is based - Simon Winchester's excellent 1998 book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

It's a period drama that shifts back and forth from the seedy cells of Broadmoor lunatic asylum to the hallowed halls of Oxford University, tracking the Herculean task of creating a dictionary that documents the origin of every word in the English language.

Despite never being sure of its central premise, the screen is alive with energy thanks to the performances of Mel Gibson as professor and Sean Penn as madman.

James Murray (Gibson) is a self-taught student of etymology and speaks at least 16 languages. Deeply curious but not traditionally educated (he was never actually a Professor), he is asked to take on the role of editor of a monumental historical dictionary of the English language, under the guidance of a stuffy committee led by Frederick Furnivall (Steve Coogan).

Promising that the task can be completed in seven years, Murray quickly falls behind - mainly because he and his small team don't have the human capacity needed to verify the source of every English word ever used.

As the snobbish Oxford committee members connive to have Murray fired, he comes up with a plan to accelerate the project: he will outsource the task of fact checking to the general public. One of the most prolific volunteers to make contributions is a Yale-trained American doctor, William Chester Minor (Penn), who does his research behind bars.

He has been imprisoned for murder and is being treated - rather brutally - for insanity. To add some spice to the plot, Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer), the widow of the man Minor murdered, takes more than a vengeful interest in the strange American.

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in The Professor and the Madman. Picture: Supplied

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in The Professor and the Madman. Picture: Supplied

The film was a passion project for Mel Gibson who acquired the rights to the book more than 20 years ago. A number of directors were attached to the film until Gibson offered it to first time director Farhad Safinia, his screenwriter from Apocalypto (2006). Financing and producing the film was Nicolas Chartier's company Voltage Pictures.

As the film neared the end of shooting, Safinia and Gibson fell out with the producer over the budget, and tensions escalated to litigation, which ended up seeing Gibson and Safinia lose control of the film altogether.

Such was the nature of the conflict that Safinia pulled his name from the credits (the director is listed as the fictitious P.B. Shemran) and Gibson has refused to help promote the film.

Does any of this matter for the viewer? Well, yes.

Films are ultimately made in the edit, and typically directors shoot what they imagine will work in the editing process, and then guide the editor through this final creative step of filmmaking with that knowledge.

With the director missing here, there's a schizophrenic feeling about the film: it's never sure whether it's noble historical drama or dark medical thriller. Or perhaps even redemptive love story.

William Chester Minor's plotline is by far the most interesting part of the narrative, especially in an era where madness and the medical profession meet as if on a battlefield, armed with instruments of pain.

Penn is charismatic and flamboyant, and his scenes with the ever reliable, snivelling Eddie Marsden (playing his jailer) and Stephen Dillaine (as his misguided doctor) provide plenty of dark cinematic drama.

Murray inhabits a much lighter world and we often see him with his long-suffering family, cheerily pushing on with the virtuous task of democratising language.

Gibson can always be relied upon to provide a highly animated and active character, although here he mangles Murray's Scottish accent dreadfully.

Production design and cinematography are of the highest standards, but the film's overbearing score adds to the sense that there was a lack of creative confidence in the finished work.

This story A period drama in search of a core first appeared on The Canberra Times.