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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man, David Lynch's film from 1980, covers two things I wanted to write about: Anne V. Coates, honored with a Governor's Award by the Academy, edited many films, but received five Oscar nominations. Two of them, Becket and Lawrence of Arabia (for which she won) I've covered, but three, though I've seen them all, I haven't reviewed on this blog. One of them is The Elephant Man, which features the lately departed actor John Hurt, in what is perhaps his most famous role.

Oddly, it is a role in which he is not seen. He plays John Merrick (who in reality was Joseph Merrick), a terribly deformed man who is touched by kindness after a long life of misery working in freak shows. Lynch, who at the time had only made Eraserhead, chose to make the film visually interesting, with frequent interstitial shots of Victorian industry--belching smoke, greasy mechanical works, gaslight, open fires--but the script is strangely sentimental and superficial.

Anthony Hopkins is Dr. Treves, who hunts down Merrick in a freak show, where he is billed as The Elephant Man. His "owner," Freddie Jones, is persuaded to let Treves examine him, but when it is realized how badly he was treated, Treves decides to let Merrick stay in the hospital. His deformities are great, and makeup artist Christopher Tucker gets it just right--the enlarged skull, the lamprey mouth, the numerous fibrous tumors all over the body. We see Merrick in fits and starts before he is fully realized, and just like London society, we come to terms with it, proving that a person can get used to anything.

But beyond the stunning visuals, with cinematography by Freddie Francis, the overall message is murky. At one point Hopkins realizes that he's no better than Merrick's despicable handler, Freddie Jones, he just has a higher class clientele. But he asks and answers his own question, and the film moves on without much introspection. And Hurt, who does admirable work under so much makeup, doesn't have much of a story arc, He's a sweetheart, and despite living in a cage most of his life, is polite to a fault. His only angry moment is when he is pursued by a mob in a train station, uttering his famous line, "I am not an animal! I am a human being!"

So The Elephant Man is basically a film about a man who experiences great misery and great joy, and while intriguing and engrossing, doesn't really offer any deep insight into the situation.

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