The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

the elephant man review
In Victorian London, a doctor's professional curiosity in his subject turns to friendship.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: David Lynch

Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Freddie Jones

the elephant man poster

What a genius gamble on the part of producer Mel Brooks to hire David Lynch to bring the story of "The Elephant Man", Joseph Merrick (renamed 'John' here) to the screen. The lunatic behind the cult midnight movie hit Eraserhead may not have seemed the obvious choice to helm a film that required such a level of sensitivity as this, but Brooks recognised something in Lynch, an outsider quality that made him the perfect choice to tell a story that portrays the best and worst elements of humanity.

Along with screenwriters Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, Lynch takes creative liberties with the life of Merrick to further enhance the worlds of light and shade the character (played by John Hurt under prosthetic makeup courtesy of Christopher Tucker) traverses. We find Merrick as a 21-year-old, exhibited in a "Freak Show" run by the cruel Bytes (Freddie Jones), who treats Merrick like an animal, regularly beating him. Merrick's body is almost entirely deformed, and the origin story invented by Bytes has his mother trampled by elephants while carrying Merrick in her womb (the real life Merrick didn't develop his condition until early childhood).

the elephant man review

Merrick is discovered by renowned surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who takes him to the London Hospital for examination. Initially he is poked and prodded, put on display for gathered intellectuals, and it seems his new life is no better than the one Treves has plucked him from. But Treves' objective scientific interest in Merrick soon turns to warmth and compassion, and ultimately friendship, as he discovers that Merrick isn't the "imbecile" he mistook him for. Visited by the Hospital's Governor (John Gielgud), Merrick recites a hymn, revealing the depth of his ability to learn.

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Merrick soon becomes the talk and toast of London, befriended by such luminaries as stage star Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) and Princess Alexandra (Helen Ryan), and a new world is opened up to a man who had previously existed in the shadows. But darkness lingers in the threatening form of Jim (Michael Elphick), a hospital porter who makes money sneaking punters into Merrick's room at night, where they humiliate Merrick in the manner of the customers who viewed him in his freak show days.

the elephant man review

The Elephant Man was the first of Lynch's collaborations with cinematographer Freddie Francis, and aside from the stylised bookends involving visions of Merrick's mother (her grotesque slow motion trashings and screamings a precursor to a shocking killing in Twin Peaks), visually it resembles the work of Francis more so than of Lynch. Francis was a master of black and white, and the film's monochrome palette heightens the themes of light and shadow, good and evil, humanity and inhumanity, ugliness and beauty. It also helps give the film a timeless quality, and on its 40th anniversary it certainly doesn't look like a movie of its era.

If The Elephant Man looks like a Freddie Francis movie, it sure sounds like a David Lynch movie. Acting, as he so often does, as sound designer here, Lynch exploits the industrial soundscape of London to create a nightmarish backdrop. When Merrick is in the hospital or visiting Treves' home, the silence is comforting, but on the city streets we're assaulted by a cacophony of pistons and rumbling pipes, the sound of progress trampling the weak.

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It's in how he slowly unmasks Merrick that Lynch displays his directorial brilliance. Before we get a good look at Merrick we've seen him as a hooded figure, a hand reaching from the shadows, and a naked silhouette examined by the assembled doctors at Treves' lecture. By the time we see his deformed features we've built up so much empathy that his appearance isn't frightening, but rather reassuring, a sort of reversal of how Spielberg builds up the shark in Jaws. Merrick looks monstrous, yet curiously winsome, like when a beautiful actress plays an alien on Star Trek. Hurt's performance relies heavily on simple gestures, like how he tilts his head to express his emotional state, and there's a childlike timbre to his lisp that adds to his innocent charm.

the elephant man review

As a man quietly dogged by the sort of questions that any conscientious liberal should ask themselves, Hopkins reminds us of the subtle performer he once was, before his success as Hannibal Lecter saw him become a byword for over-acting. "Am I a good man or a bad man?" Treves asks his wife (Hannah Gordon). In his attempt to "save" Merrick, has he simply transferred him from one freak show to another by introducing him to high society? By simply asking the question, he's given us our answer.

In other hands, The Elephant Man might well have devolved into a patronising piece of misery porn, but Lynch displays a sensitivity and respect to his subject to such a degree that we soon look past Merrick's physical appearance and grow to admire, maybe even envy him. A closing shot pans across Merrick's bedside locker, displaying a signed photograph of Kendal, a picture of his late mother and the model of a nearby cathedral he lovingly constructed. We realise in this small moment that despite his limitations, Merrick has lived a full life. He has experienced love and friendship, and he has created something of beauty. How many of us can say that?

The Elephant Man (40th anniversary 4K restoration) is in UK/ROI cinemas March 13th. It will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray, 4kUHD and Digital on April 6th.