The Elephant Man (1980)
Whether you loved or hated David Lynch's "The Elephant Man", the movie leaves a strong impression.
The movie concerns the life (later researched and found to be true) of John Merrick aka Joseph Merrick.
The movie begins with a circus-like dream sequence. We see a picture of a woman, plainly elegant. Then we see her struck to the ground by an elephant. She screams and we hear the elephants trumpet—everything goes black.
Cut to Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a man with a curiously quiet disposition. He is hanging around the freak tent at a run down circus. He sneaks past "Do Not Enter" signs and makes his way backwards through what looks like a haunted walk-through attraction. There are midgets in cages who make jokes and fetuses in jars. What Lynch is doing right now is cementing the viewer in the nostalgia horror style of film that he will eventually use to make the viewer sympathize with the main character. The filming is quite attractively shot in black and white. Everything looks very clear and very crisp.
Treves gets to the attraction crassly labeled "The Elephant Man". There is a policeman at the attraction telling the announcer that this freak will have to go unseen today. The officer thinks that the man is too repulsive to be viewed.
But Treves is determined to get a look at the elephant man so he sends errand boys around to scout for the unsightly "creature".
Word gets back to him on the whereabouts of the man. When he sets off to where the man is being kept, he runs into Bytes (Freddie Jones) who tells Treves that he is the man's "owner".
Bytes earns a living by showing off the deformities of the elephant man.
Treves asks him to let him have a private showing, in exchange for money, of course.
What Treves sees shocks him and he asks that the man be brought to his hospital. You see, Treves is a doctor with keen interests in anatomy. This man is a specimen and a very peculiar one at that.
Treves examines his new patient and presents the man to his colleagues at a meeting where he is commended for finding the man.
Then, the man is forgotten. He is let go . Treves watches him leave from the window and makes a remarkably pointed comment about the man's mental ability. Dr. Treves thinks that the elephant man is an idiot, at least he hopes he is.
For what kind of life would it be to walk around in a freak's body, knowing that you are a freak? Sounds like a special version of hell.
The elephant man's body is riddled with tumors, his spine is curved unnaturally, his right arm is enlarged and completely useless, his head is swollen, and his mouth is almost unusable.
The film is set in 1883 by my calculations (Joseph Merrick was born in 1862 and the film has him at 21 year of age). This was the age of stopping and staring, which people did so darn well.
When the man returns to Bytes, he is beaten cruelly in a drunken stupor. When Bytes clears his head, he realizes that he needs the man to get money. Treves is brought back into the picture and he takes the man away to the hospital where he starts to heal.
Ugly and unwanted, the man insights horror everywhere he goes. Nurses walk into his room and scream when they see him.
But the man has intelligence in his eyes, Treves is intrigued by this.
Speech therapy and coaching allows the man to be coaxed into talking with people. Turns out, he's quite charming and British once you get past the hideous outer layer. His name turns out to be John Merrick (John Hurt).
This is obviously a parable of inner beauty, a curious tale to come from such a visceral director as David Lynch.
What I really liked about the movie was the gothic way in which it was told—dark alleys, smoke billowing, and the eerie organ grinder music of the circus.
It's reminiscent of silent horror movies like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"...and with that in mind, it's quite effective.
Anthony Hopkins is an acting genius, he brings a smart warmth to Treves that gives the character so much depth.
Treves is intelligent enough to look past his own career and realize that he might be exploiting John's unique appearance.
John Hurt took on a very fearless role, the mask he has to wear to be John Merrick gives him no facial expressions whatsoever. Yet his performance earned him and Oscar nomination, the Academy did well in this particular case.
At the ending of the movie Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" plays and the tears fall—it's kind of like cheating.
My problems with the film come with it cutesy need for sentimentality. It could have gone a step forward with its fearlessness, but it stopped short and made the main character likable in all respects.
The film fails to address several issues with John Merrick's life, conveniently forgetting about them with the fade-out that it employs so generously.
A lot of people liked this movie, it earned an impressive eight Oscar nominations, though it won none. That being said, a lot of people didn't like the movie too. Roger Ebert was one such person, he claimed the film was slightly pointless.
I disagree, it seems very blatant that the movie is about ridding yourself of prejudices. If everyone could just be Anthony Hopkins, it would be a good world.
Yes, the film indulges itself slightly—I can admit that. But it really got me...I don't know why, but I was duly impressed.
Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones