Thursday 1 April 2021

Streaming on Netflix - John Baxter casts an eye over Mel Gibson and THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (Farhad Safinia, 2019)

Mel Gibson, The Professor and the Madman


            I once had the honour of writing some lines for Mel Gibson. The honour would have been greater had he actually spoken them, but, just off a flight from LA to appear at the Australian Film Awards, he had his own thoughts to impart. Even on so trivial an occasion, Mel did things His Way.

            Whatever one’s opinion of Apocalypto, spoken entirely in Yucatec, or The Passion of the Christ, in equally impenetrable Aramaic, and of performances in such re-boots as Edge of Darkness, Payback,  even the Zeffirelli Hamlet, they are indisputably his. Few film-makers have so aggressively imposed their personality on their work.  He leaves the previous record holder, Kirk Douglas, eating his dust. 

            Gibson apparently recognised a kindred spirit in James Murray, the self-taught lexicographer recruited in 1879 to compile the first definitive guide to the English language. Murray devoted the rest of his life to the task while publishers and academics schemed behind his back, some to frustrate him, a few to help.  His monument is the Oxford English Dictionary, a ten-part work containing 600,000 words, the origin and evolution of each documented in 13 million quotations. 

James Murray (front, centre)

            So seminal a project deserved libraries of reference books and a regiment of researchers. Murray got four men and a tin shed in the grounds of the school where he taught. Definitions were written on slips of paper the size of postcards. Within a few weeks the hut’s thousand pigeonholes overflowed and entries began to colonise the walls from floor to ceiling. 

            Denied more help, Murray appealed to the reading public. Among those responding was William Chester Minor, an American doctor living in Britain, who would finally supply 10,000 entries for the first volume alone.  He could afford the time, being confined for life to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. 

Sean Penn,
The Professor and the Madman

            Gibson bought Simon Winchester’s account of the Murray/Minor relationship, The Surgeon of Crowthorne,  in 1998, but didn’t begin shooting until 2017. The director was first-timer Farhad Safinia,  co-writer of Apocalypto.  Lurking inside a fearsome beard and nursing an imperfect Scots accent, Mel played Murray, while Sean Penn, with a head of hair reminiscent of an exploded sofa, became Minor. 

Mel Gibson, Sean Penn

            The politically incorrect “madman” in the title was calculated to startle.  Insanity has all but disappeared from the Hollywood menu. It’s usually shown as no more than a passing confusion of mind, curable with concentrated doses of TLC. Even Hannibal Lecter, fiction’s favourite anthropophage, is moved to assist Clarice Starling where he would once have devoured her, grilled, with a cheeky Côtes du Rhone.  

            In A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard and Russell Crowe showed the delusions of another paranoid schizophrenic, mathematician John Nash, in the cozy terms of an espionage thriller. By contrast, Penn’s depiction of William Minor’s demons is unsparing. During bouts of mania, he believed creatures crept from under the floorboards to press bars of poisoned iron against his gums. Convinced a passing stranger was one of them, he shot and killed him.   

            With his customary preoccupation with suffering, Gibson insists on illustrating the crude therapies of Victorian medicine. Minor is plunged repeatedly into icy water. To curb obsessive spitting,  a guard induces spells of retching by putting fingers down his throat. Less invasive but just as grotesque, a phrenological examination assesses his personality by reading the bumps on his skull.  

            Minor would have died in Broadmoor but for the friendship of a keeper (Eddie Marsan) and the respect of his victim’s widow (Natalie Dormer). They and Murray persuade the Home Secretary, a boyish Winston Churchill, to deport him back to the US and, hopefully,  more enlightened forms of treatment.  

            The film was not so fortunate. As costs rose and investors sought to save money, Gibson became increasingly aggrieved. The final rift came over a suggestion that some exteriors could be filmed in Trinity College, Dublin rather than the colleges of Oxford. A new screenwriter and director took over. Gibson sued to prevent the film’s release, and failing, disowned it. Following patchy theatrical distribution, it has come to rest on Netflix.

Mel Gibson

            Gibson makes films less to entertain than to educate. He initially resisted subtitlingThe Passion of the Christ  because puzzling out the dialogue would be “good for the soul”.  The Professor and the Madman, far from avoiding obscurity, courts itMurray and Minor, on the rare occasion they meet, communicate in a private verbal shorthand, murmuring in ancient Greek and quoting Paradise Lost.  Minor makes his first appearance like a pantomime genie, with a bang and a puff of smoke, as he pursues his frantic victim down empty night-time streets. Flashbacks suggest he’s being stalked by a soldier who, as a military surgeon in the Civil War, he was ordered to brand on the face as a deserter. Or is this another delusion? Further deponent saith not. 

            Ezra Pound, also incarcerated as insane, though with less reason than Minor, wrote sceptically of a poet who tried in vain to improve the public mind.  

            For three years, out of key with his time,

            He strove to resuscitate the dead art

            Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’

            In the old sense. Wrong from the start.“   

            Getting this, Mel?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.