The Elephant Man (1980)
Hopkins Feels Merrick's Hurt
I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man! - John Merrick
"The Elephant Man" is a very good movie which tells the touching and fascinating story of Joseph Carey Merrick, a man who became better known as the Elephant Man due to his disfigurement which including bone protrusions, bumpy skin and deformed face. In fact so fascinating is the movie I would wager anyone to watch it and not become more intrigued by this man who was born in 1862 in Leicester, England and who died in 1890 at the age of 27. But I will say that whilst Merrick's story is fascinating I find David Lynch's movie both good and bad and by bad I am not on about his choice to film in black & white as that helps create a great sense of authenticity. Nope not only do we get some surreal moments which feel at odds with the story but it also seems a very one sided account, taken from Dr. Frederick Treves own account of his time with Merrick and as such has at times a false sense of nicety about it.
With circus freak shows falling out of popularity Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins - All Creatures Great and Small) comes across John Merrick (John Hurt - Alien), billed as The Elephant Man due his enormous disfigurement which would scare people when they saw him. Intrigued by Merrick, Treves ends up taking him to the London hospital where he worked, becoming a friend and discovering that behind the horrific disfigurement was a gentle, sensitive man misjudged by mankind who only saw him for how he looked.
I'm going to get my issues with "The Elephant Man" out of the way with first because for the most it is a very good movie which does a decent job of recanting part of the life of Joseph Merrick. Now my first issue is that the movie opens in a surreal manner where we see a woman attacked by Elephants, it is suggestive that this is Merrick's mum being attacked by elephants which is totally fictitious. But being fictitious isn't my issue, my issue is that it is too surreal and these surreal moments crop up a few times which feel out of place, too suggestive and fanciful in the way they come across.
My other issue is that "The Elephant Man" is in part based upon Dr. Frederick Treves own book about his time with Merrick and so feels very one sided. By that it comes across that the time Treves sent with the gentle Merrick touched him deeply and so whilst we may get told about how hard life was for Merrick it always seems to be holding back never showing the true picture. Maybe that is just me but it has that sort of sense of being slightly sanitized as if anything which could be really unsettling has been kept private. The evidence that "The Elephant Man" relies on Treves's book is that in the movie Merrick is called John, the same name which Treves used in his book yet evidence shows that he knew Merrick was called Joseph.
Anyway those are my negatives out of the way with and whilst "The Elephant Man" does at times feel a little too sympathetic and one sided it does make it very easy to watch which is a good thing. It means that we quickly sympathise with Merrick from the moment Treves discovers him in a freak show being exploited by Bytes his owner to how slowly Merrick is able to live a few moments of normality. Along the way we learn how people perceived him as a monster due to the way he looked and even Treves was shocked to discover that despite speech difficulties was certainly not stupid. And we also see how people tried to profit off of him including Treves who without realising it was no better than Bytes when he allowed the well to do of society to meet Merrick just to get their names in the papers. It is quite simply a fantastic story and whilst it does feel a little too sentimental it is also genuinely touching.
Now whilst I don't like the various surreal moments which director David Lynch throws at the audience I have to say his decision to go black & white is brilliant. Not only does it create a sense of authenticity as if we have gone back in time but it also makes the wonder work of the make-up department even more impressive. From the first minute we see John Hurt underneath the layers of latex you can't take your eyes off of him, not in a staring at the freak sort of way but in the fact that not only does it all look real but also highlights the pain Merrick must have felt living with such a disfigurement.
Talking of John Hurt you have to applaud such an outstanding performance hidden behind the make-up because he gets so much emotion across. From the way he cowers in the corner to the gentleness of the way he speaks he manages to deliver this character who people thought was a monster but when they got to know him realised he wasn't a monster or freak but a sensitive misjudged person. Hurt's performance is so good that many of the actors including Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves and John Gielgud as Carr Gomm end up being over shadowed. That doesn't mean they are bad performances in fact there is not a single bad performance in the movie with the likes of Freddie Jones, Anne Bancroft, Hannah Gordon and even a young Dexter Fletcher all delivering great characters.
What this all boils down to is that for me "The Elephant Man" is a very good movie which tells a fascinating story. Visually it is brilliant from the make-up work to the use of black & white to create atmosphere and so is the acting. But it is slightly spoiled by two things the occasional surreal moment and the fact that it feels slightly sanitized as if some of the more unsavoury elements have been left out.
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