The Elephant Man – Review

12 Nov

Joseph “John” Merrick is a man that throughout the years has become a very interesting individual. This isn’t due to any achievement or talent that he had, but because of the rare and extremely curious disease that ailed him, now known as neurofibromatosis. In 1980, the year of this film’s release, David Lynch only had Eraserhead in terms of feature films, but the uncredited producer Mel Brooks was so impressed with this film that he hired Lynch to act as director of the story of Merrick’s later life in The Elephant Man.

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Doctor Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a surgeon in London who comes across an interesting specimen at a traveling freak show one night. This specimen is John Merrick (John Hurt), a man whose extreme deformities make the general public reel in horror at just the sight of him. Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital to be studied, but soon gets him permanent residence and care. Over the time spent together, the two men become very close friends and Merrick’s reputation as a tragic human being is made known after he befriends famous stage actress Mage Kendal (Anne Bancroft). While everything seems to be going better for Merrick with the help of many kind and caring people, hateful and greedy men from his past and present still use him for fear and money, making Merrick’s ailment all the more difficult.

The Elephant Man is a hard movie to summarize because it isn’t really a plot based movie, but more of a character study and a look at how society should see people who are different. Casting David Lynch was a very interesting choice given his absurd and surreal filmography. This is a much more straightforward film than his others, but there are still glimpses of his trademark style from nightmare sequences to the heavily industrialized area with beautiful shots of smoke blowing out of chimneys and grimy machinery being operated, all embellished an excellent industrial sound design.

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Now, there are a few movies whose sole reason for existence is to test the limits of my tear ducts. Crying isn’t the most enjoyable past time, but sometimes when I’m watching a movie (or the last episode of the John Adams miniseries!!) I just can’t really help myself. The Elephant Man is a very difficult movie to watch in this respect. Seeing Merrick dealing with his disease is hard enough, but seeing his very human reactions to people gawking, screaming, and making fun of him is even worse.

So no, this is not an uplifting movie at all, but this isn’t really a film to watch if you’re looking for a good feeling to be had. This is something to watch to learn about a man’s life, how to treat other human beings regardless of their individual circumstances, and to admire the cinematography by Freddie Francis, who went on to work with Lynch in Dune and later on with Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear. The point is that you really need to know what you’re getting into with The Elephant Man.

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David Lynch may forever be known as one of the strangest and most surreal film makers of the modern era, with films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive to stand as testament. He did something beautifully different with The Elephant Man. He created a very human drama an very unusual and interesting man to come out of the Victorian era. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and succeeds in telling this man’s story, despite some historical inaccuracies. It’s one of those movies that are just plain perfect.

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