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Drama

The Professor and the Madman: A Masterful And Fascinating Story

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If I am to fashion a book,
I’ll need a spine.

Sometimes you are awed by cinema films because of the immensely beautiful special effects and the use of unparalleled images. The other time it’s the inventiveness of a story and the way it’s structured. And in other films, you look with admiration at the way certain actors play their role. Is it obligatory that a movie looks phenomenal to you? Or does it happen sometimes that while reading a novel, in which the sophisticated juggling with words creates literary excitement, you have difficulties to keep your eyes open and your head nods back after a short period after which a little snoring is heard? Well, in that case, it might be better for you to ignore this film. Because in “The Professor and the Madman” there are no breathtaking special effects to be found and the emphasis is on the literature from this world. For me, this was a masterful and fascinating story about how the world-famous “Oxford Dictionary” was put together.

 

The Professor and the Madman

 

A practically impossible task.

Even though this takes place around 1850, there are certain facts that can be found in our contemporary society. And, of course, there are also substantial differences. The film is not just about the realization of an almost impossible assignment with limited resources. It’s also about the existence of class differences, scientific ignorance and the application of inhumane practices in psychiatric institutions. It demonstrates the pretentious behavior of the wealthy class and the political juggling in intellectual circles. And in between these topics, there’s the Scotsman James Murray (Mel Gibson) who, with the help of countless strips of paper, miles of knitting yarn and with a ton of patience, tries to contain and interpret every existing English word in literary history. An assignment that requires immense efforts to the detriment of his wife and children.

 

The Professor and the Madman

 

Literature isn’t a sexy subject.

I’m aware that literature (at least for me) isn’t exactly a sexy subject. I already assumed that this film wouldn’t be intense or exciting. But just like with “Kill your Darlings“, this historical drama fascinated me. And this because of the challenge Murray took on. I looked in disbelief at the method that was applied. And I was constantly wondering if this was achievable. It’s an era where people didn’t know the word digital yet (one word they don’t need to concentrate on) and they didn’t have computers at their disposal. No indexed work file with linked cross-reference tables on which one could release SQL statements, to do big data analyses. No, everything was scribbled down with old-fashioned ink pens on sheets of paper and then attached to the walls. Can it be more primitive? It’s wonderful to see that James Murray actually applies the principle of content management here by encouraging the English people to write down English words and send them to them by mail (indeed no e-mail).

 

The Professor and the Madman

 

Brilliant acting by Gibson and Penn.

It’s mainly the brilliant acting of the gentlemen Mel Gibson and Sean Penn that makes the film more interesting. Gibson plays the Scottish academic and autodidact who, despite the opposition of the established values from the Oxford Board of Directors, is appointed as the driving force behind this renowned work and is a model of perseverance. My favorite scene is where he’s introduced to these intellectual snobs who don’t even bother to hide their aversion. The moment Murray lists all the languages he knows and I saw those bewildered faces of the narcissistic academics, it immediately reminded me of the scene in a student bar with Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting“. There, too, such a rich man’s son with a snobbish attitude was put in his place in a brilliant way.

 

The Professor and the Madman

 

Overacting? Nope, he’s just plain nuts.

Mel Gibson’s sparring partner is William Chester Minor (Sean Penn), an American army-doctor and war veteran who is haunted by delusions. In a phase of extreme madness and schizophrenia, he kills an innocent passer-by and ends up in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In short, an institution for criminal madmen. The doctor on duty there, Dr. Richard Brayn (Stephen Dillane), initially envisages a decent treatment (which leads to certain privileges such as a large room with a gigantic library). But towards the end, he eventually seems to be a supporter of terrible techniques anyway. It’s thanks to a book that Minor received from his victim’s widow (In my eyes, the weakest aspect in this film) that he finds out that Murray asked the English people for help. And that’s the impetus for Minor to get to work and to overload Murray with thousands of words for the dictionary. The way Penn plays this tormented and insane man is simply formidable. And yes, this tends to look like overacting. But isn’t it necessary to portray this type of individual? Minor is after all nuts.

 

The Professor and the Madman

 

The beards intrigued me.

There are several facets that are beautifully worked out. Such as the detailed decor in which the story takes place. London during the 19th century with its typical costumes, way people behave and attributes. But above all, the interaction between the two extremely brilliant gentlemen is perfectly portrayed. Two tortured intellectuals. The one because of the obstructions and impossibility of the assignment. The other because of the inner demons that make his life unbearable. An individual suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An unknown condition in those days. The dialogues in which the two gentlemen show their love for English vocabulary is sublime to watch. The way in which they both perk up while saying one word after the other with a smile is a feast for the eyes. Perhaps the corny storyline about the widow Eliza Merrett (NatalieGame of ThronesDormer) didn’t really fit in with the whole and the emphatic message about regret and forgiveness was a bit over-the-top. But despite those shortcomings, I found this historic film based on true facts fascinating enough. So if you have questions about the origin of dictionaries, you shouldn’t miss this film. At the same time, you also have an idea about academic intellectualism (and their self-righteous and arrogant attitude) and the horror of 19th-century psychiatry. But what I wondered the most: are Gibson’s and Penn’s beard the result of natural beard growth or props?

 

My rating 7/10
Links: IMDB

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Drama

The Zone Of Interest Is A Bleak Reminder of the Horrors of Holocaust

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Zone of Interest [credit: A24]

The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer’s latest feature loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel of the same name. It stars Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller in the lead roles. The German-language feature was a major breakout from the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where it also won the Grand Prix award. It is based around one of the darkest chapters in human history and serves as an important reminder of how brutal and evil humans are capable of being.

Glazer is known for having carefully crafted frames with plenty of nuances which is the case here as well. He intricately designs each and every scene for maximum impact. Before we enter the first scene, the screen fades to black with a chilling score in the background that sets the viewer up for everything they are about to witness. Black is also the colour of evil which hints at what aspects of human nature this story will explore. The cinematography is also top-notch. The use of natural lighting works really well to complement the setting of a warm family atmosphere. Also, there are a few moments where the visual style changes and those scenes are thoughtfully captured as well.

Zone of Interest [credit: A24]

Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller are both fantastic in their roles. Friedel is absolutely convincing as Rudolph Hoss, the commander of the Auschwitz concentration camps, and Huller plays his wife Hedwig, who steals a lot of scenes with her emotional range. The editing is also careful and patient. Each scene gets time to breathe and settle properly resulting in a lot of extended scenes of the daily life of the family. The background music is minimal, but whenever it kicks in, it makes sure to elevate the scenes with creepy and ominous sounds.

The plot may seem basic and simple on the surface level, but we gradually see the layers unfold as the narrative moves forward. The story gets darker and darker with time and can be utterly shocking and horrifying at times, especially in the third act. It is no doubt a slow burn In terms of its pacing and takes its own time to set things up and we keep getting to see more sides of the characters in the second half of the movie. 

Zone of Interest [credit: A24]

 

It is utterly shocking how a family man who reads his children bedtime stories and loves his wife wholeheartedly can do the things that Rudolph Hoss does. But that level of brutality and faithfulness to reality is among its biggest strengths. The movie doesn’t have too many weak aspects, but it is slow and takes a while to get going. Also, it will turn out to be difficult to follow or comprehend for general audiences and it might be difficult to follow for some. It demands patience and attention.

The Zone of Interest is a kind of movie that subtly and slowly horrifies you with its brutal and harrowing storytelling. Jonathan Glazer is at the top of his game. The lead performances are top notch and the conclusion leaves a heavy impact on the viewer. It won’t work for everyone, but will certainly find the appreciation it deserves.

The Zone of Interest will release in cinemas on December 8.

 

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Drama

‘Past Lives’ Review: A Transcendent Cinematic Journey

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Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in a still from 'Past Lives' (A24)

Hollywood has a knack for producing extraordinary movies year after year, but there comes a time when the industry exceeds all expectations with a gem of a movie like ‘Past Lives.’ A mesmerizing film directed by the talented Celine Song takes audiences on an unparalleled journey of self-discovery and the exploration of our interconnectedness through time. This thought-provoking movie connects various lives, blurring the boundaries of reality and immersing viewers in a transcendental tale.

The romantic drama showcases Song’s remarkable storytelling ability, presenting a narrative that delicately balances emotion and intellect. ‘Past Lives’ starts with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora (Greta Lee), and Arthur (John Magaro) sitting at a bar. An unseen couple watches and tries to guess their relationship. We are taken back in time and get all the vital details about the relationship they have been sharing throughout various parts of their lives. One of the best aspects of the movie is how Son interconnects the lives of diverse characters across different periods and unveils the secrets that bind them together. The film’s nonlinear structure allows for a gripping exploration of multiple storylines, ensuring an engaging and enthralling experience.

Greta Lee in a still from ‘Past Lives’ (A24)

Visually, ‘Past Lives’ is an absolute feast for the eyes. The poignant visuals heighten the emotional resonance of the narrative, leaving a lasting impression on the viewer. Accompanying the stunning visuals and sound design is an enchanting score that perfectly complements the film’s ethereal quality. Beyond its visual and musical splendor, the movie invites viewers to contemplate profound themes and philosophical questions. The film raises thought-provoking inquiries about the nature of existence, the way people’s lives are connected, and the impact of our actions across time. The script forces the moviegoers to reflect on the concept of destiny, choices, and the ripple effects they create.

Furthermore, the performances in ‘Past Lives’ are nothing short of extraordinary. The ensemble cast, led by seasoned actors, delivers nuanced and heartfelt portrayals, breathing life into their respective characters. Greta Lee is enchanting as Nora and delivers a performance that is undoubtedly going to give her all the buzz during the awards season. Meanwhile, Teo Yoo is just as brilliant. The talent on display evokes genuine empathy, enhancing the overall experience.

A still from ‘Past Lives’ (A24)

Even though the awards season is far away from where we are, we have already got a strong contender for Best Picture and top acting categories in the form of ‘Past Lives.’ It is quite rare these days to see a romantic story that provides such an immersive experience and we are glad that Celine Song’s film has given us a movie that makes us wonder why such romantic movies are not made anymore.

‘Past Lives’ is a modern masterpiece.

 

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Comedy

A Kind of Kidnapping – Dark Comedy with Politics

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Written and directed by Dan Clark, this fairly star studded independent film follows a young couple who are stuck in a financial situation, and decide to kidnap a sleazy conservative politician in order to receive a ransom, that will allow them to escape their static lives.

Patrick Baladi (The Office) plays Hardy our creepy politician, Kelly Wenham (Double Date) plays Maggie, a complex woman who seemingly is always drawn to the “bad boy”, Jack Parry-Jones (The Crown) plays Brian our voice of reason within all of this, or is he?

A Kind of Kidnapping [2023]

The character development is well written and allows the space for character arcs, unlike a lot of small films, where there isn’t that room in the script. The three main leads feel very grounded and familiar, everyone knows someone like this in their life or perhaps public figures in the media.

The performances of the main three lead actors are great, if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think this film would work as well. Alongside the strong performances, the editing of the film helped to navigate this non-linear plot and allowed the film to peel aways the layers of backstory which all helped to create a stronger character driven piece.

A Kind of Kidnapping [2023]

As the film was nearing the final act,  it felt as though it was dragging a little. Dan Clark mentioned in the Q&A after the screening how this was a short film before and I can definitely see how it could work in a confined setting really well. Maybe there was a bit of padding in second to third act to reach that feautre length requirement that didn’t aid certain character moments.

If you want to hear my full thoughts, the best thing to do is check out my review over on YouTube and let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

When independent film is fighting for its life, A Kind of Kidnapping is the light in the dark. This is one of the better British produced indie films I’ve seen in a long time. 

A Kind of Kidnapping is out on digital on 24th July on iTunes, Amazon, Google and Sky.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the [series/movie/etc] being covered here wouldn’t exist.

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