Film review: The Elephant Man (1980)

Elephant Man 1

Elephant Man 2

Director: David Lynch. Screenplay: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch, based on the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu. Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Wendy Hiller, Kenny Baker.

The true story of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film), who in the latter half of the 19th Century was exhibited in freak shows due to his hideous appearance. A prominent surgeon, Frederick Treves (Hopkins) finds Merrick (Hurt) in a sideshow and saves him from his cruel “owner” Bytes (Jones). Once Merrick has been brought to the hospital where Treves works, he realises that Merrick isn’t an imbecile like he first thought. In reality, he’s an intelligent and kindly young man, and even the strict hospital director (Gielgud) gets attached to him and arranges for permanent residence. But this is by no means the end of Merrick’s tragedy.

As must be apparent, The Elephant Man is far from being the horror film some people expect, other than perhaps in terms of the horrors Merrick is subjected to by Bytes and other exploiters (things which have been exaggerated from the true events). The real Joseph Merrick might have objected to the sentimental tone of the film, but on the whole Lynch and company have created a fine work. Certain of the picture’s events never occurred in real life (for instance, to my knowledge Merrick never asked if he could be cured), and some of the more lurid inventions are out of place in this type of story. However, Merrick is shown as the humble and romantic man he was, according to all contemporary accounts.

The Elephant Man was Lynch’s second feature following Eraserhead. This film is more conventional than Eraserhead, but the two have several things in common. Both are in black and white (The Elephant Man was beautifully shot by Freddie Francis); Lynch takes 19th Century industrialisation as an excuse to throw in sequences of smoking factory chimneys, men working at machines and so on; and there are a couple of hallucinatory dream sequences that are a lot more accessible than the ones in Eraserhead, but which are still typically Early Lynch.

The script is based on two factual studies, one by Treves himself and one by scholar Ashley Montagu. I’ve had the opportunity to read Montagu’s book, and I can recommend it even though he often wanders far afield from his subject matter. Treves’ book is, I’ve heard, even worse on that account – he wrote it as an old man and evidently had difficulty remembering such things as where the hospital was located, and the fact that Merrick’s first name was Joseph, not John, a misconception also perpetuated in the film.

The advanced full-body makeup Hurt wears in the movie was created by Christopher (The Company of Wolves) Tucker based on preserved molds of the real Joseph Merrick’s head and body. The exception is the mouth, which couldn’t be exactly reproduced, since it would have prevented Hurt from intelligible speech; in real life, Treves was apparently one of few people who could understand Merrick when he talked. The makeup is grotesque, convincing and very close to what Merrick actually looked like, but I take objection to the way he’s kept masked, or shown as a silhouette or in shadow until “the big reveal”: for a film that wishes to be sympathetic towards its protagonist, this smacks of horror movie tropes and the objectifying exploitation Merrick was subjected to in reality.

There’s certainly nothing to complain about on the casting side. Despite Lynch as director and Mel Brooks as producer, this is a very British film, and if there’s anything Britain is good at it’s generating good actors. Hurt balances precariously on the verge of sentimentality as the sensitive Merrick and manages to come out on the right side, creating a very moving portrayal. Hopkins brilliantly underplays Treves, doing his trademark acting trick of expressing much while seemingly doing little. Sir John Gielgud, Freddie Jones and Wendy Hiller are other British acting giants who contribute greatly to the genuine feelings, from gentle compassion to raw viciousness, that make this a film of many emotional layers.

A touch less sappiness would have done The Elephant Man a world of good, but the amazing true story and Lynch’s peculiar tonal qualities counteract the sugar overdose and in the end turns it all into a great and almost essential film experience.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Bonus review: Meet the Elephant Man (2011) is a documentary about Joseph Merrick that is shallow, unfocused and ultimately pointless. In 46 minutes it tries to incorporate Merrick’s life story, an attempt to reconstruct his walk and speech, and the story about Brian Richards, who suffers from Proteus Syndrome, the same illness that affected Merrick.

The Merrick biography part is a hasty sketch that, due to its lack of detail, often gives a faulty impression of the course his life took. Brian Richards is interesting enough, but he shouldn’t dominate the story of another person; his screen time should have been limited in favour of a documentary of his own.

Much ado is made about the computer simulation of Merrick’s gait and the prosthetics used to have an actor approximate his speech, but the end result doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, and the whole thing, at least the voice experiment, comes off as unscientific and faintly ridiculous. It doesn’t help that every time one of the experimenters starts saying something interesting, he or she is drowned out by generic narration.

Not worth anyone’s time, except perhaps for the real Merrick devotees on a day when they feel like getting really, really annoyed.

Rating: 4 of 10.

The real Joseph Merrick.

The real Joseph Merrick.

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