The Professor and the Madman (2019)

The Professor and the Madman (2019)

I came across this film while browsing on Amazon Prime. I was looking for something so that I might avoid the misery of watching the news and its endless litany of death and blame. Despite its big name stars, Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and capable cast (Natalie Dormer, Steve Cougan, Laurence Fox, to name a few), I had not heard of it. I checked online and it was free from awards, aside from a nomination for the musical score, and had rather lacklustre reviews which told more of the politics of the film’s manufacture than of the film itself. However, user reviews were good so, trusting in the hive mind and the wisdom of crowds, I decided to give it a try. That, in summary, is how I discovered one of the best films made in recent years.

This is a drama documentary about the creation of a dictionary and the story of two men who are thrown together in this task. One is a Scottish autodidact. a polyglot or rare intelligence who is supported by his wife, and his faith, in his diligent attempt at a mammoth task. He fights against prejudice and doubt and stands steadfast despite setbacks. The other is an American doctor who, while insane with schizophrenia and labouring under delusional beliefs, shoots and kills the father and breadwinner of a poor London family. He is incarcerated in in an asylum and must face and cope with his delusions, depression , guilt and remorse. Like the Scot he is helped in his battle by his faith, his intelligence and the support and intervention of a woman (on his part, the widow of the man he killed).

This is a fascinating story well told. The acting is consistently good. accents authentic and emotion convincingly displayed. Likewise the dialogue is well written and entertaining, and as a bonus will expand your vocabulary – you will know what ‘assythment‘ means at the end if you did not at the beginning. But perhaps most importantly you will know the answer to the question “If Love … Then What?“; as, in addition to language, the most important theme of the film is that of love and redemption. It deals with them through issues of guilt, diligence and honour but does manage to consider these in a real sense, not in a glib way, and to consider more difficult aspects such as Agape and Grace.

I perhaps should not have been surprised or wary that the film garnered no awards or that its review were lukewarm. I knew Mel Gibson remains a persona non grata in media circles and would be unlikely to be given any gongs. But having seen the film I understand the empty awards shelf. A film driven by drama rather than action, entertaining with thoughts rather than deeds, a film celebrating moral steadfastness rather then the joys of transgression, a film that wasn’t riding on the back of any current bandwagon but looking at more basic principles, a film wondering at the love we can have form one and other without any sexual reward – how on earth could such a film win any wards ? It is probably too late for it to be recognised now and it may disappear into the bargain basement bin of films on free to view channels, but if you get the opportunity to see it and are in the mood for something moving then this is worth a few hours of your time.

‘I saw a man’ by Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is one of the best writers working in Britain at the moment. As a poet, dramatist, playwright and novelist he is at the top of his form. There are few who can match him as a story teller. He is certainly the equal of Ian McEwan and in this book he shows some clear similarities in style. Perhaps, unusually he is the first person to become the writer in residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. Though this is not inappropriate for a man who played scrum half for Gwent County and, when a student, captained the Oxford University Modern Pentathlon team.

But why am I spending so much time talking about the author. The reason is simple. I think you should read his books especially either his first one “Resistance” or his most recent novel, this one, “I Saw A Man”. It is difficult to review this novel without giving too much away and spoiling the book for a future reader and hence I have padded this review with some autobiography and the hope that this and his clear credentials might tempt people to try the book.

This book has a number of interwoven tales where the protagonists deal with the issues of loss, grief, guilt, accidental tragedy and the hopes for redemption. The book can be read as a thriller with a mystery revealed in the first few pages which is then followed by a tense ride as the sequence of events is uncovered. The links between events become clear and there is great satisfaction in their denouement. I, like many other reviewers, read this book in one sitting it is so captivating. The links may not seem obvious, between a drone operative in Creech Air force base in Nevada and a young girl falling down stairs in her London home for example, but they are never contrived or stretched.

However, much more impressive than being an effective taut thriller it is also a wonderfully well written book about grief and guilt. He manages to write in a manner that brings the characters and their domestic circumstances to life. We can imagine them and empathize with them. Importantly we can see, and understand, the mistakes the characters make and perhaps this is where the novel is at its best; it lets us see and consider our own tendencies to self-deception.