DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: THE ELEPHANT MAN

Monday 12 February 2007


The Elephant Man (1980) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt


“The Elephant Man” is one of the all time tragic stories. Despite his other, more famous, Lynchian-typical works as “Blue Velvet” or “Mullholland Drive,” “The Elephant Man,” is one of David Lynch’s more straight-ahead films, and is arguably his greatest. It’s a perfect film.

It tells the real life story of John Merrick, a young man with severe facial and bodily malformities, who is rescued from the circus and brought into upper class society. The time is 19th century London at the peak of the Industrial revolution. David Lynch recreates the period to perfection. The dirty streets, smog, and the constant of noise of machinery are everywhere. It’s so authentic you can practically smell the garbage on the streets. We meet Anthony Hopkins who plays Frederick Treves, a doctor who has ventured into London’s lower class east side to find the Elephant Man, a big attraction circus ‘freak.’ Treves is brought behind the scenes by the Elephant Man’s “proprietor”, Bytes, (an intense and scary Freddie Jones) for a private viewing. Hopkins’ reaction to the ‘grotesque’ man is one of cinema’s great moments.

Merrick is brought to live in Treves’ hospital, where he undergoes a rigorous examination. We discover Merrick, has been abused all his life, and was beaten near death by Bytes just prior to his arrival. Treves shows off Merrick to his colleagues, which is another more acceptable way is being exploited once again. Merrick befriends the doctors and nurses and becomes a sensation within the upper class society. Just when life is good for Merrick, Bytes returns to reclaim his “property”. He takes Merrick away to France and puts him back in the circus. Merrick escapes from the circus with help from the other circus players. The scene is one of the many emotional scenes that brings tears to your eyes. The ending of the film is even more emotionally charged and unbearably heartbreaking.

Despite the tragedy of Merrick’s life, the story is uplifting, as it shows how nobility and dignity can rise among the bleakest of environments. Merrick accepts everything in life as a gift, no matter how revolting or depressing. Charles Dickens would have been proud.

Though its one of Lynch’s more audience-friendly films, it contains many of his most famous devices – the constant acoustic drone, dreamlike fantasy sequences, ominous camera movements into dark places. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including all the major awards - Best Picture, Director, Actor, Writing etc. It’s a forgotten masterpiece that needs to be rediscovered. Enjoy.

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