#24 The Elephant Man
(1980, David Lynch)
“I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
In Victorian England, freak shows and curiosity exhibits were popular, displaying all manner of strange and wonderful examples of odd human beings, from dwarves to Siamese twins. The most unusual and subsequently one of the most famous examples of this was Joseph Merrick (incorrectly referred to as John in some texts, including in this movie), also known as The Elephant Man, so called because of numerous physical deformities such as an enlarged head and tumorous growths all over his body.
The movie is a biopic of this man, as played by John Hurt, detailing his life from the time he was taken out of a circus show and put into the care of Dr Frederick Treves (here played by Anthony Hopkins). Some liberties have been taken with the storyline compared to reality – particularly in regard to the timeline of events – but otherwise all events portrayed are taken from biographies and notes about the real Merrick’s life.
The first thing to note about The Elephant Man is that this is a relatively straightforward film, but is made by a director who is anything but straightforward in his style. David Lynch is known for his weird art films that rarely ever tell an obviously coherent story, so it’s surprising that this movie is not like that in the slightest. There are concessions to Lynch’s trademarks in a few short surreal dream sequences, but these are used to highlight Merrick’s inevitably tortured soul in what is otherwise a very simple, very sweet story.
The film moves very slowly, and in fact features very little conflict to drive the story along. While this sounds like the film could be a disaster, there is a great warmth to the portrayal of Merrick that helps move the film along. We identify with Merrick’s plight, and sympathise with man who is treated like dirt by many for his physical appearance, despite having a kind and intelligent soul within. He exhibits no malice towards others and just wants to live a happier life.
John Hurt is the main reason for all of this. Despite being covered in mountains of prosthetic makeup to allow him to transform into the “elephant man”, he still exhibits a range and depth of emotion from underneath it that help us see Merrick as someone who should be accepted for who he is rather than ridiculed and ostracised for his deformities. That Hurt can do this so effectively when we can barely see his face or hear his voice is a testament to his acting ability.
But the movie’s not perfect. The narrative isn’t particularly strong and events feel a bit disjointed at times. The few moments of conflict are often brushed over very quickly. Even events that were added for creative reasons to help create a stronger narrative could easily have been left out and not much would have changed. In addition, character development is poor. Treves, although played well by Hopkins, is a very bland character whose sole character conflict – whether or not he’s any better than the sideshow owners who previously held him captive – lasts for all of one scene and then is never brought up again. Some more exploration here would have been truly effective.
But ultimately, the film is very emotional and a rather suitable tribute to the life of this strange but wonderful man. It sets out to tug at the heart strings and, Lynchian dream sequences aside, succeeds admirably.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt & Anne Bancroft
Written by Frederick Treves (book), Ashley Montagu (book), Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
Produced by Jonathan Sanger, executive producer Mel Brooks
Music score by John Morris
Cinematography by Freddie Francis
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Favourite Scene: Merrick’s visit to Treves’ home is fantastic. We can truly see the joy that Merrick is feeling at finally seeing a “real home”
Scene That Bugged Me: Any time the movie wants to remind you David Lynch was behind it. Seriously, did we need a five minute acid trip involving a troupe of elephants and a screaming woman? At least there weren’t any backwards-talking dancing midgets, even though that could have been possible.
Watch it if: You want to see an ostracised man get his rightful place in society
Avoid it if: You don’t like people with big deformed heads
Originally posted on Blogspot Friday 9 December 2011