Elephant Man, The (1980)

“I am not an animal — I am a human being!”

Synopsis:
In Victorian England, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues a severely disfigured man (John Hurt) from his abusive carnival “owner” (Freddie Jones), and allows him his first chance at a life of dignity and respect.

Genres:

Review:
Although it’s often considered to be something of an aberration from director David Lynch’s usual oeuvre, this heartbreaking biopic is actually well in alignment with Lynch’s fascination for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Oscar-nominated John Hurt (who’s completely unrecognizable) plays the title role of Joseph Merrick, a real-life young man who suffered from a rare congenital deformity known as Proteus Syndrome, making him look decidedly freakish and abnormal; and while there’s no denying Hurt’s inestimable skills as an actor, his success here as Merrick is due in no small part to the tremendous efforts of make-up specialist Chris Tucker, who developed an elaborate synthetic “mask” based on a cast of Merrick’s actual head. Anthony Hopkins — equally affecting in a less “showy” role — plays the doctor who at first is merely fascinated with Merrick’s physical condition, but soon comes to realize that an intelligent, sentient being exists underneath the bulbous folds of skin and bone.

Merrick’s transformation from mute “creature” to dignified gentleman — the crux of the film — is truly a wonder to behold; even those who rarely cry at movies (myself included) will find themselves hard pressed not to be moved by this one. Scene after scene — enacted by a crew of exceedingly well-cast supporting actors — prompts a renewed investigation of our own prejudices, as we realize just how important a relatively “normal” appearance is to our acceptance of others as human. My favorite scenes are those between Merrick and a renowned actress (Anne Bancroft) who barely bats an eye upon seeing Merrick for the first time, and remains resolutely dedicated to treating him like the gentle hero he is. Equally touching is the initial scene between Merrick and Dr. Treves’ wife (Hannah Gordon), whose “natural” acceptance of his appearance causes him to break down in sobs of gratitude.

Some (including, I suspect, Peary, who neglects to nominate either Hurt or the film itself in his Alternate Oscars book) find The Elephant Man overly cloying — and there’s no doubt that our heartstrings are strategically tugged throughout the entire film. Indeed, the final portion of the story — in which Merrick is kidnapped back by Jones, and forced to temporarily revert to his former status as a carnival freak — is nearly too much to bear, and shifts the story into undue pathos. Apart from this aberration, however, Merrick’s journey remains a fascinating one to watch, and proves that there’s nothing more uplifting than watching a character transform and transcend his initial limitations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Hurt as Joseph Merrick
    Elephant Man Hurt Picture
  • Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves
    Elephant Man Hopkins
  • Anne Bancroft as an admiring actress
    Elephant Man Bancroft
  • Wendy Hiller as a no-nonsense nurse
    Elephant Man Hiller
  • John Gielgud as Treves’ superior at the hospital
    Elephant Man Gielgud
  • Freddie Jones as Merrick’s abusive captor
    Elephant Man Jones
  • Hannah Gordon as Dr. Treves’ sympathetic wife
    Elephant Man Wife
  • Chris Tucker’s extraordinary make-up design
    Elephant Man Hurt
  • Freddie Francis’s b&w cinematography
    Elephant Man Cinematography
  • Atmospheric period detail
    Elephant Man Period Detail
  • Many heart-breaking scenes
    Elephant Man Hug
  • An effective soundtrack by John Morris

Must See?
Yes, as a “good show” by an important director.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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