Weighty, tedious film about birth of a dictionary



126 minutes/Opens today/2.5 stars

The story: In 1857, Scottish schoolteacher James Murray (Mel Gibson), a self-taught polyglot and linguist, is asked by the Oxford University Press to create the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Murray’s small team is quickly bogged down, but with the help of write-in volunteers such as William Minor (Sean Penn), who hunt down the places where certain words have been used in literature, they soon move ahead. Murray then discovers the dark truth of the man with the encyclopaedic knowledge of the classics. Based on the 1998 book The Surgeon Of Crowthorne.

This is Gibson’s pet project, nurtured for 20 years by his production company. Like the dictionary at the centre of the story, it is weighty and sprawling.

Unlike the tome, this movie is neither useful nor necessary.

For example, Murray has a job that is mind-bogglingly massive, but also important. This is mentioned many times. Murray and the stuffy dons of Oxford bring it up frequently and, when he is at home with wife Ada (a criminally underused Jennifer Ehle), it is brought up again using his inside voice.

But it would not be fair to call this an all-talk-no-action movie because it is quite the opposite.

Director Farhad Safinia (credited under the name P.B. Sherman) films it all in his feature debut.

From the carnage of the American Civil War battlefield to the squalor of London’s alleys, every detail that formed Minor’s pre-dictionary life is shown instead of mentioned, even if that flashback is a few seconds long.

It breaks up the visual tedium of a story that takes place in studies, drawing rooms and hospitals, but there is a flatness to them that becomes another form of tedium.

Safinia wrote the Mayan epic Apocalypto (2006), which Gibson directed, so it is clear both share a taste for triple-underlining plot details through music, dialogue and action.

The bombast wears thin, especially when the story lingers on Minor’s stay at the infamous Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

The aptly named Dr Brayne, played with icy intent by Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon in Game Of Thrones), tries to “cure” the American of his mental disorder using the latest 19th-century techniques. Dr Brayne, in other words, uses torture.

Those familiar with Gibson’s brand of masculine cinema – war movie Hacksaw Ridge (2016); Apocalypto and; most famously, the religious drama The Passion Of The Christ (2004) – will already know that Minor will suffer. Greatly.

It would be hard to think of another actor who would do justice to the role of the crazed genius quite like Penn. As Minor, he offers the full “mad Penn” catalogue: manic to catatonic, with every shade of gibbering derangement in between.

The contrast between Gibson’s sturdy scholar and Penn’s addled inmate is a contrivance that works, but the other devices – making the snobbish dons of Oxford the villains, throwing Natalie Dormer’s widow Eliza into the mix as a love interest – have the smell of calculation.

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