The Elephant Man Reviews
The Elephant Man is proof positive that such criticisms are total nonsense. And it is also proof that it is possible to make a film about ?the triumph of the human spirit? without descending to the very depths of saccharine schmaltz. While not a flawless work, The Elephant Man is a compelling exercise in biographical filmmaking, both as a character study and in its examination of social attitudes.
As I mentioned in my review of Ed Wood (1994), in any biopic there is a natural tension between the supposedly objective, historical record of events and the subjective sensibility of the filmmaker. A good biopic is not simply one which gets all the facts right, especially at the expense of the drama. In order for any biopic to work, there have to be clear signals from the director right from the start about their attitude to the material and the extent to which their creativity is going to intervene.
The comparison between Ed Wood and The Elephant Man is very apt, since both films depart from the accepted version of events to make deeper points about themes and social attitudes. In real life, Ed Wood never met Orson Welles in a bar, and Bela Lugosi did not curse like a sailor. It doesn?t matter. Tim Burton makes it clear that he is being affectionate towards Wood, using such creative decisions to turn an ordinary story about a struggling filmmaker into an extraordinary film about a battle between deluded creativity and an equally deluded studio system.
Likewise, it doesn?t matter that Joseph/ John Merrick wasn?t ritually flogged, or that he went to Belgium before meeting Dr. Treves rather than after. The film is not so much about the life and death of Merrick as it is about the society which shuns him. The Elephant Man is one of the most moving and honest examinations of the truism that a society mocks, denies or hides from that which it cannot understand. Merrick?s deformity may be biologically unique, but it is also an exaggerated means of expressing his difference, and by extension the small-minded, fickle nature of the people who come into contact with him.
This small-mindedness runs throughout the social structure of Victorian society. Regardless of their proximity to him, most of the characters mistreat or spurn Merrick, despite (or perhaps even because of) claiming to understand him. Bytes calls him an ?imbecile? and treats him like a possession, though he is strangely moved when he comes to Treves demanding to take him back. Treves starts by seeing Merrick is little more than a career opportunity, and Mr. Carr Gohm is equally aloof. It is only when Merrick demonstrates his intelligence (by reciting the whole of Psalm 23) that their attitudes and perceptions begin to change.
In a lesser director?s hands, this kind of character arc could have been completely overplayed, and the remainder of the film would have been one long exercise in trying to make us cry. But what is impressive about The Elephant Man, and about Lynch?s direction, is that it manages to feel raw and emotional without ever looking like it is trying to be either.
The visuals betray both the success and failure of The Elephant Man, containing many images and motifs which we now associate with Lynch. He has always been fond of the grotesque side of human existence; the freak shows and dark streets are played slower, forcing us to linger on their twisted and strange quality. But in general, the visual style is very restrained, respectful and fastidious, recalling the work of David Lean. The film is like a surrealist Great Expectations, and is beautifully lit by Freddie Francis.
The film is incredibly respectful towards its subject from a visual point of view. The cloak and hood was only intended to be used for a couple of scenes; its presence was increased because Christopher Tucker struggled to complete the make-up in time. When Merrick is first revealed, it is not played for shock value, neither is it designed to make the audience deeply uneasy in the manner of Eraserhead. Moments in the film, like the opening scene of Merrick?s mother and the dream sequence involving machinery, resemble Eraserhead very closely, and it can feel like the edgier side of Lynch is trying to escape. This experience is nowhere near as jarring as it is in Dune, but it remains somewhat frustrating.
Because of this fastidious quality of the visuals, and the conventions of the period, there is really very little room for mawkishness. But there is plenty of room for emotional involvement with the characters, even in scenes which seem overtly sentimental. Covering actors in lots of make-up is a risky business: the audience can spend so long glued to the prosthetics that the performance becomes little more than pantomime, as in Legend or Return of the Jedi. But John Hurt?s performance as Merrick is terrific: it feels utterly genuine from the first to last frame, and it is hard not to cry at his every triumph and tragedy.
The film?s supporting cast are also very solid. Anthony Hopkins complained in later life that he found Treves a dull character to play, but there is nothing dull about his performance. Treves begins as an opportunistic doctor looking to impress his London Hospital friends, but the experience of treating and caring for Merrick brings about a profound if gradual change in his worldview. In a key scene, he wrestles with himself as to whether keeping Merrick at the hospital has made him a circus act all over again. Much like Tom Hanks? character in The Green Mile, Hopkins is wrestling with the idea of doing good which is simultaneously harming someone he cares about.
The role of women in The Elephant Man is peripheral, with neither Treves? wife nor Anne Bancroft?s actress being given much screen time. But this is compensated for by the recurring images of Merrick?s mother, who appears in flashbacks and in the photograph which Merrick carries. The photograph is not just a symbol of Merrick?s devotion to his mother, but an expression of his desire to be loved and accepted. This makes the final scene, in which he finishes his model and lays down to die, all the more cathartic and beautiful.
The Elephant Man may not be Lynch?s finest work, being neither as artistically pure as Eraserhead nor as shockingly beautiful as Blue Velvet. But it sits close to the company of Ed Wood as a yardstick of inspirational biopics, and as a milestone of black-and-white cinema. Being one of Lynch?s most accessible films, it is also a good starting point for anyone interested in his career, and taken purely as a drama it delivers a genuine emotional punch. An all-round excellent effort from one of cinema?s greatest directors.
While the performances were good enough, the execution was a bit too flawed IMO. The only part that I felt was incredibly done was John's visit to Treves' house where he visits his wife. Apart from that, the movie lacked the emotional punch by & large. Sorry, but crying out loud dialogues (like "I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am.a man!") don't strike any emotional impact on me that it's supposedly ought to. Nor do repetitious stuff like "Oh my friends! Oh my friends! Thank you! Thank you!" work, not for me at least. Frankly speaking, I don't think that David Lynch (Lynchian fans, please pardon me if you can) was the right choice for this kind of flick. Someone with a better experience & expertise on how to present such a story with the right dose of emotions in the right way (for crying out loud, not making the characters cry out loud) would've yielded a relatively greater outcome.
Finally, while the movie's fairly worth watching, it's by no means a masterpiece, IMHO.
Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones.
<<"Never. Oh, never. Nothing will die. The stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats. Nothing will die.">>
The story, based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, follows an Englishman born with a horrible disfigurement and risen as a freak in the circus. A Victorian surgeon by the name of Fredrick Treves takes him away from the life he has endured and treats him with care and soon realize that he is a very pure soul.
I'm still in a state of shock after seeing this film for the first time merely hours ago and I still wonder how I passed this film for so many years.
Every level of this masterpiece is spectacular in every way. David Lynch's direction is a work of art. Such beautiful detail and a incredible understanding of the drama that inflicts this character, its a beautiful transition from paper to film.
The screenplay builds itself around this character strongly and never exploits his condition in the slightest. The brilliant thing about it is that its so genuine in everything it aims for and it is such a intricate human study so full of pure emotion...I am glad to say that the film bought me to tears many times during the film, its such a pure character.
Pasted on top of some exquisite cinematography and brilliant set design is the a collection of powerful performances. Anthony Hopkins really is an astonishing actor and he handles his character brilliantly and alongside some very good smaller performances is John Hurts spectacular portrayal of John Merrick. Even underneath the groundbreaking make-up, he radiates and pushes through a pure soul of a man, such a masterful performance and it would have taken the Oscar had it not been for one other brilliant performance that year.
Never a sentimental film, The Elephant Man is a genuinely rich and emotional study of a beautiful soul plagued with a horrible disfigurement. Vividly stylish and powerfully rich, The Elephant Man is a dramatic masterpiece.
<< "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being...I am a man!" >>
Through astonishing cinematography (by Freddie Francis) and quite subtle sound effects (Lynch's usually surreal use of sound makes perfect sense here), the vile gothic atmosphere permeates every scene to the point that we can almost taste the metalic filth and grease of the Industrial Revolution. This is possibly the greatest cinematic evocation of the Victorian age.
The story of Joseph Merrick (incorrectly called John for the film!) is a great one in itself and it would have been easy to render things mawkish and cloying. The Elephant Man is neither. Lynch does veer closely to over sentimentalising Merrick's story and plays free with the facts as well as being rather pick&mix about who were the heroes and villains that Merrick came into contact with (for example Frederick Treves was less of a hero than he is portrayed here and Merrick was less of a victim). But this is still meant to be a piece of cinema and dramatic license is expected. So that through a mixture of fact and fancy we do get some measure of the kind, clever, sophisticated and yes, even beautiful man who had to live his (very short) life trapped inside a prison of deformed flesh and bone. A man of great dignity, compassion and generosity of spirit (many of those privileged to have met him were incredibly moved and felt more than a little humbled). Lynch has also been criticised for treating Merrick as much a freak as he was when he was alive. For example, the pre-publicity of making a big secret of the make-up lasted right into the film, as the audience is teased with holding back 'the big reveal' (similar to how Spielberg gave us E.T!). But that is just another part of the film's greatness - Lynch baits us into anticipation and horror. Then daring us to squirm and feel revulsion, to snigger and poke sticks through the cage. So that when we are given Joseph Merrick - the man, we feel shame. And so we should! Lynch makes it perfectly clear that we are still very much the baying audience of the Victorian freak show!
"Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
"If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind's the standard of the man."