The Professor & The Madman (2019) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Based on a fascinating biographical work by Simon Winchester, this story highlights the compelling and tragic friendship between two extraordinarily brilliant men of the Victorian era.

Though a Scotsman and thus looked down on by the snobs at Oxford College, Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is their best hope for the successful completion of their desired Oxford English dictionary. The passionate Scotsman proposes he can finish the project in a fourth the estimated time, by encouraging the public to assist them in gathering words and definitions of all kinds. Though the college dean (Anthony Andrews) smiles upon this, he grants permission. Murray uproots his wife (Jennifer Ehle) and children and moves them to Oxford.

A few miles away, Dr. William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) is arrested for the murder of a common laborer. Plagued by hallucinations and paranoid delusions, Minor is convicted of criminal insanity and sent to a mental institution. There, the benign Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) does all he can to encourage Minor to return to reality -- including restoring his personal library to him. After he saves a guard's life through an impromptu medical amputation, the guards present him with a book. Minor finds in it Murray's appeal for public assistance in finding words -- and it becomes his new obsession.

This leads to an unusual, complex friendship between the two men, while Minor comes to terms with his guilt, reconciles with the dead man's widow (Natalie Dormer), and fights a losing battle with his own precarious sanity.

Much of this film is compelling and fascinating. It chronicles two very different men who share the same obsession; at one point, Murray jokes that he doesn't know which of them deserves to be in the madhouse! It can also be, at times, difficult to watch, due to the indignities Minor suffers in the institution -- many of them self-inflicted. It's hard to see a man losing his mind and spiraling into darkness, yet that may be the power of it -- like Murray, we're powerless to do anything about it. Even more interesting are the themes of redemption and forgiveness. Minor grapples with the idea of God's punishment and forgiveness; Murray's wife starts out condemning him, using his mental competency as proof he committed murder, and then finds tremendous compassion for him. The characters reference God numerous times, suggesting you find forgiveness in Him, but it is not overly preachy. Seeing the bereaved widow come to care about him is profoundly satisfying.

Though rated R, the film is more graphic in its implications than its content. The acting is incredible -- Sean Penn gives another of his most masterful performances, capturing an obsessive man dealing with schizophrenia. The costumes and sets are all magnificent. I was not a fan of the musical score, however -- it seemed an odd choice and I never enjoy raspy violins. It's not something I will add to my private collection, but it's powerful enough to watch twice.

Sexual Content:
To earn money, a woman whores herself out to men; she leads one into an alley and sticks her hand down his pants, to "warm him up"; but he complains that it's too cold and slaps her away. A man hates himself so much, and his perceived sins, that he cuts off his own penis (off camera; though we see him creep into the hall covered in blood).
 
Language:
None noted.
 
Violence:
A man is shot through the chest and neck; blood spatters. An iron gate falls down on a pan, piercing his leg with one of the slats. A prisoner saws it off to save his life (below camera, though we hear the saw on the bone and see blood spatter). A man becomes violent and has to be restrained. He cuts off his own penis (not shown; we see the bloody instrument afterward, and blood on his nightshirt around his crotch area). A man strikes a woman in the face hard enough to bruise her; a young woman punches and beats on a man before she runs away.

Other:
The asylum attendants force a man to vomit repeatedly into a basin so they can photograph it; another man vomits elsewhere after he sees lots of blood.