The Professor and the Madman

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
The Professor and the Madman Movie Poster Image
Parents recommend
Surprising history of dictionary packs compassion, violence.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 124 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Demonstrates the power of forgiveness and redemption. Themes also include compassion, perseverance, and teamwork.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Dr. James Murray lives by principle of diligence, as demonstrated by his pursuit of learning, dedication to his task, perseverance in doing right by Dr. William Minor even though his support of a criminally insane man could tarnish his own reputation. He's a good friend, looking beyond stigma of mental illness and past mistakes. Dr. Minor makes a tragic mistake during the throes of his terrifying delusion but does everything in his power to make up for it. Eliza Merrett finds there's a better place beyond hate and holding a grudge: love and forgiveness.


An innocent man is chased with gunfire, then shot/killed in the street. Bloody, graphic battlefield wounds. A leg is impaled by a gate's spike; the bloody, gaping wound is shown, followed by off-camera amputation. A character self-harms; it's strongly implied that he's castrated himself. A character is branded on the face as a punishment. A character is forced to throw up repeatedly as a medical treatment. A lead character is terrorized by delusions that he's being stalked with intent to harm. 


Love grows between a couple. Implication that a woman is attempting to prostitute herself.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bydjuddemti June 18, 2019

Not for kids! Suggestive material.

I like the movie a lot (but I collect old dictionaries so....) I am writing this because the initial review on this site said nothing racy, but there is a scene... Continue reading
Adult Written byCguido May 25, 2019
Gets off to a slow start as the two story threads are introduced. But worth wading through . Positive messages about friendship through adversity, understandi... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bycheese attack August 16, 2019
Teen, 17 years old Written byJamesdavis88 August 19, 2019

Hard to follow...

Parents, don’t let your kids watch this movie there is literally a scene in which one of the main characters cuts his penis off, ok, that explanation is enough

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?

Movie details

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