A duet and a dictionary
The Professor: grizzled, well-groomed beard, clear eyes, loving, motivated husband and father. The doctor: shaggy beard; often wild-eyed; plagued by terrible memories, hallucinations and guilt. The two men’s parallel stories – unlikely, but true – coalesce in 1870s London in an attempt to create the first-ever Oxford English Dictionary.
The Professor and the Fool, a 2019 film available on streaming platforms, is not a simple recap of historical events, but a deep and emotional drama elevating God’s grace, mercy, and redemption into the lives of complex characters. He also uses language in a profound and often humorous way. If you like a good story with heroic but flawed characters, this will appeal to you. If you enjoy the game and accuracy of English words, you will get an extra bonus.
James Murray (Mel Gibson) is a Scottish autodidact, an accomplished self-taught teacher in over 20 languages and dialects who revels in words, their meanings and their origins. Because the academic delegation at the University of Oxford is desperate to create a comprehensive lexicon of the English language after 20 years of failure, its members reluctantly accept the illiterate and unconventional Murray to lead a new effort. Murray’s enthusiasm knows no bounds, but he wants his wife’s support first: “If I’m going to shape a book, I’ll need a backbone. She inspires and strengthens him.
The film opens by introducing Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), a retired American Civil War surgeon who flees to England, believing a murderous army deserter is after him. In his delusions, Minor shoots and kills the wrong man and is sentenced to a criminal insane asylum.
When Murray hires volunteers across England to contribute words and quotes to his etymology research, Minor joins the quest from his asylum room. With passionate common sense, he gleans words and phrases from books lining his walls, contributing over 10,000 entries to the dictionary.
Murray finally meets Minor on the grounds of the deceptively serene asylum. Seeing his chains, Murray realizes that Minor is not a doctor there, but a patient, but still befriends him.
Despite his madness, Minor arouses sympathy and admiration. He frees an asylum keeper from a crushing gate. He bequeaths all his property to his victim’s wife and teaches her to read. However, like Inspector Javert of Wretched, his tormented soul cannot grasp the concept of grace. Her struggle leads to some disturbing moments involving self-punishment and torturous treatment by the superintendent of the asylum, earning the film its R rating. Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.
A masterfully filmed unusual tale, the film’s conversations and dimensional relationships make it memorable. You may even find yourself looking up words like Assembly.