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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Professor and the Madman is based on Simon Winchester's nonfiction best-seller about the strange-but-true friendship between Dr. James Murray (Mel Gibson), editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and its chief "volunteer," Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), a criminally insane murderer. As the title suggests, the film deals with the mystery of mental illness and, in this case, how its delusions can mislead and torment those who suffer. Several scenes include violence (sometimes with guns), blood, and wounds that may make viewers a tad squeamish -- but none of it is gratuitous. The most disturbing instance -- the strong implication that a character has castrated himself -- is largely left to suggestion; other parts show someone being branded on the face as a punishment and someone being forced to throw up as medical treatment. Love grows between two characters, but it's quite vague, and there's no racy content at all. Nor is there any strong language or substance use. The story offers a real-life example of two people who looked deeper into a troubled soul and realized he still had something to contribute to the world. It has themes of teamwork, perseverance, and compassion.
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What's the story?
Based on Simon Winchester's same-named book, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN follows Dr. James Murray (Mel Gibson) as he creates the Oxford English Dictionary, setting out to identify and find the origin and development of every word in the English language. In the process, he develops an unexpected friendship with the project's most prolific and intellectually sharp long-distance contributor: Dr. William C. Minor (Sean Penn), a criminally insane murderer.
Is it any good?
Despite the fact that both the star/producer and the director have disavowed it, this isn't a bad film; it's beautifully shot and sensationally acted, and it tells a fascinating real-life story. It must be challenging to make something cerebral -- the quest to find and identify word origins -- into something exciting, so the initial focus of The Professor and the Madman is more on the enormity of the task. While teens have likely never thought about how the dictionary was created, most have faced moments of having to tackle an overwhelming assignment, and the film may set an example for them: Ask for help, divide it into smaller tasks, and conquer. It also may be useful to see that, while Murray's employers wanted him to take shortcuts so he'd move faster, he insisted on the work's integrity, thoroughness, and accuracy.
Perhaps that's where The Professor and the Madman went south: Director Farhad Sahinia (who removed his name from the credits) and star/producer Gibson weren't allowed to shoot additional scenes, and they insist that the movie is incomplete. We'll have to trust them on that, but what remains is solidly interesting. It's no easy feat to turn a mentally unstable man who shot and killed an innocent father of six into a sympathetic hero. Penn's vulnerable, enigmatic portrayal of Minor is focused in his vacant but pained eyes. Giving more depth to his humanity are the interactions with Murray and Natalie Dormer's Eliza Merrett. The story we're watching may be set in the past, but with mental illness on the rise (or at least increased diagnosis and awareness), the message that society shouldn't abandon or ridicule the afflicted couldn't be more timely.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the stigma of mental illness. Does that label create a bias against those who suffer? How does the media play into that bias?
The stars of The Professor and the Madman are known for their volatile personalities and controversies off-camera but are also recognized as extremely gifted at their craft. Do you believe we should support someone's contributions to society if we don't agree with their conduct?
How do Dr. Murray and Eliza Merrett act with compassion? What is the consequence of their compassion (and that of Mr. Muncie) on Dr. Minor?
How does Dr. Murray use teamwork to create the Oxford English Dictionary? Why is teamwork an effective tool?
Dr. Murray lives by the slogan "Only a diligent life." What does that mean? How does he demonstrate perseverance? Why is that a valuable character strength?
- In theaters: May 10, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: August 13, 2019
- Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer
- Director: Farhad Safinia
- Studio: Vertical Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship, History
- Character strengths: Compassion, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 124 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: April 5, 2020
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