In 1879, Scottish Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) leads a project with the ambition of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary, and finds a breakthrough in progress when he is helped by American Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum inmate, Doctor William Chester Minor (Sean Penn).
Mel Gibson and director Farhad Safinia (going under the pseudonym P.B. Shemran here) met working on post-production and promotion of The Passion of the Christ, and went on to do potent work co-writing Mel Gibson’s superb next film, Apocalypto. Their next project together would see Safinia take over in the director’s chair of Gibson’s adaptation of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a project he had hold of since 1999. Unfortunately, after power struggles and litigation concerning the control of production, this resulting adaptation indicates that the best drama was happening behind the scenes.
Gibson and Safinia both left the project halfway through, and have both disavowed it following unsuccessful attempts at blocking its release. It’s a real shame, because there is a much better film in here, hoping to break out. It’s at times shot magnificently, and the performances are solid in places, with some great stuff coming from supporting cast members Steve Coogan and Eddie Marsan particularly.
Even unaware of the problems plaguing the film’s production prior to viewing, it is still plain to see that the film is fractured, and feels unfinished, rushed, and uneven in places. Blessed with knowing the context of the issues at play now, some credit can be given due to the fact that this is an excruciating missed opportunity that occasionally shows promise, and will likely stir fantasies in the minds of film geeks of accessing the alternate dimension where one could buy a ticket to see this movie as it was intended to be presented. Sadly that film is relegated to the inaccessible void where it shares a seat on the back of the bus with Jodorowsky’s Dune, Cronenberg’s Frankenstein and Kubrick’s Napoleon.
Gibson and Penn really get their characters to gel at certain moments, but those valiant efforts are undercut with questionable (but perhaps necessary) jumps, leaving the scenes stagnant in the latter half of the film. It’s a perpetual feeling of momentum being achieved and then squandered. What we do get is not a terrible film, but very unremarkable given the fertile grounds it had for growing an engaging and moving hit, and that is maddening as hell. My best advice is to wait for the good version to come out on Interdimensional Cable.