The Elephant Man (1980)
By: Julian on January 12, 2010  | 
Universal (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.30:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 118 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller
Screenplay: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
Country: USA
External Links
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The Elephant Man is the loosely biographical story of Joseph Merrick, the tragically medically anomalous figure and token of high society sympathy in 1800s-era London. Referred to as "John" in the film, a mistake co-writer/director David Lynch repeats from the source material, books by Dr Frederick Treves and Ashley Montagu, The Elephant Man depicts Merrick (John Hurt) as he makes a living working at a freak show in London's East End. A doctor from London Hospital, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, in one of his best roles outside the Hannibal films), discovers him and bargains with the freak show's proprietor Mr Bytes to take Merrick to the hospital for research.

At the hospital, Dr Treves presents Merrick to a bevy of stunned colleagues, where he observes that Merrick's disease has spared his left arm and his genitals, and Merrick would die from asphyxiation should he ever sleep lying down. When Merrick is returned to Bytes he is beaten badly and Treves is called in to intervene. After a heated argument, Bytes allows Merrick to be taken back to London Hospital, where Treves vows to help Merrick lead as normal a life as possible.

After encountering some static from the hospital's Governor (John Gielgud), Merrick is allowed to remain at the hospital where Treves teaches the publicly mute Merrick pleasantries and basic phrases. When it's revealed that Merrick isn't an imbecile as the Governor and Bytes had originally thought, Treves takes Merrick out in public and brings him into more civilised situations.

The story of Joseph Merrick is an absolutely heartrending one – Merrick, born in 1862, joined the London sideshows at twelve years of age. It is about this time when he first met Treves, who gave Merrick his business card should he ever want to submit to medical examination. Two years later, after working in England and Belgium as a freak show exhibit, Merrick approached Treves. While it was originally thought that Merrick suffered from elephantiasis (a disease affecting skin and tissue), it was later considered more likely that Merrick had Proteus Syndrome, a congenital disorder affecting skin growth and bone development and enabling the growth of deforming tumours.

The Elephant Man takes some creative licence with certain facts about Merrick's life, just as most biographical films do – Merrick did not go with Treves immediately as shown in the film, and Merrick was only brought out of his mute state by corrective surgery, not via Treves' therapy. However Lynch isn't necessarily interested in presenting a non-fictitious account of Joseph Merrick's life – instead, he presents a character study of an incredibly courageous man. What's quite exceptional about The Elephant Man though is that Lynch doesn't go out of his way to try and elicit an emotional response from the audience, instead using the black-and-white cinematography and judicious use of John Morris' haunting score to provide an unremittingly bleak backdrop that naturally evokes a feeling of stark hopelessness. It's a very good technique that creates an indelibly downbeat mood regardless of the redemption the concluding few minutes may hold. In brief, The Elephant Man is a real downer, one of the saddest movies I've seen in quite some time.

Lynch suffered some scrutiny regarding his depiction of Merrick, with some critics seeing it as exploitative and leering. Indeed, Christopher Tucker's make-up work on The Elephant Man (which, after he was unrecognised for his work by the AMPAS, led to the creation of a new Oscar award category for Best Make-Up) is sublimely grotesque, and Hurt endured seven hours of make-up application at the beginning of each shooting day before he was able to be filmed. But as confronting and monstrous as the make-up is, The Elephant Man doesn't exploit Merrick's character, nor do the effects disable a viewer from fully relating with Merrick and his plight. However what really brings The Elephant Man together are the performances, brilliant all around but with a particularly good turn by Anthony Hopkins, one of the best and most versatile character actors around.

Mel Brooks was on board as executive producer for this film though he remains uncredited because Brooks was convinced his past comedy work would adversely affect people's perceptions of this movie. Brooks had originally offered directorial duties to Terrence Malick but, after being impressed by Eraserhead, Lynch was confirmed for the job. I've neglected the director for as long as I've been watching movies, so I've been on a real Lynch kick of late – based on what I've seen, it's certainly no stretch to call The Elephant Man an atypical David Lynch movie. It's a very conventional (by Lynch standards) and mature (by any standards) picture that proves beyond doubt Lynch's prowess as a filmmaker. None of his films since have quite stretched him as much as what this one did, both behind the camera and as a storyteller. A brilliant and devastating piece of work.
Picture is presented in 2.30:1 with 16:9 enhancement, which is slightly cropped from its 2.35:1 OAR. The black and white cinematography by Freddie Francis is just fantastic, and 19th century London is filmed beautifully.
One audio track is provided, in English Dolby 2.0, and it does the job well.
Extra Features
Barely anything – a theatrical trailer, text bios and a photo gallery. The UK R2 disc has a featurette on Merrick and interviews with Hurt and Lynch, and the US R1 provides featurettes on Merrick and Tucker's make-up work. In any case, the import would be the way to go.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
The Elephant Man is a truly affecting drama, the heartbreaking story of Joseph Merrick whose cries of "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a man!" in the film's final few minutes drives Lynch's message home. It proves David Lynch's profound talent as a filmmaker and is an absolutely magnificently shot, scored and acted movie. Highly recommended.

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