Film Review: The Elephant Man

The True Face of Society

Whether folk have seen the ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) directed by at the time new weird kid on the block David Lynch, or not, there’s a strong likelihood that they know the existence of one John Merrick (born Joesph) who lived in Victorian London.

John was born in 1862, and soon began to develop bodily deformities that increased in severity with age, to such an extent that his only means of employment was being a member of a supposed ‘Freak’ show under the name of The Elephant Man, where people would come along to see this literal misfit of society.

David Lynch had just made his incredibly idiosyncratic, brooding, disturbing and deliberately alienating feature debut ‘Erasurehead’ (1978) and it can be no surprise that he was attracted to the story of what could be deemed another alien member of society in Merrick. It was early days in his directing career, but he had already shown a profound ability to find the beauty in what initially my be deemed otherwise. Merrick’s lack of physical conformity was the perfect muse to Lynch’s vision.

It’s forty years later, and Lynch is one of the most famous directors ever to have existed, and also, still one of the most unique directors ever to have guided our eyes, hearts and minds. He is renowned for many potentially darker themes in his works, which are guided by an inherent honesty in his presentation and exploration of society and its foundations in darkness. Personally speaking, he’s at his most successful when capturing the seemingly fleeting profound humanity that can bloom in society given the right circumstances. The first being in the case of The Elephant man, and notably a few years later in The Straight Story (1999).

From the beginning of The Elephant Man’s film inception, the script stuck a powerful chord with anyone who was lucky enough to read it. It had a powerful, human story of profound dignity and survival despite the odds, but it was by no means a commercial opportunity, it was much bigger than that. It’s only with the coming on board behind the scenes of comedy mastermind and hugely successful film maker Mel Brooks with finance and contacts that truly got the ball rolling.

With the gravitas of Brooks silently (deliberately so as he didn’t want anyone thinking this was a comedy) behind the creative and explorative venture, the caliber of components went interstellar.John Hurt came on as Merrick (he didn’t even ask for a fee, but got a percentage of profits such was his belief of the story), Anthony Hopkins played  Frederick Treves who was a surgeon with a speciality in anatomy who studied Merrick and later wrote  The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) about his experience, which became one of the sources to the movie.

The cast also included such greats as John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Hannah Gordon, Freddie Jones, Wendy Hillier, Michael Elphick and also a very young Dexter Fletcher, who has since come on to be a highly established director in his own right.Major components of the success of the story were reliant on the look of the film itself, and the quality of cinematography by Freddie Francis (shot in black and white), art direction by Robert Cartwright, production design by Stuart Craig and creator of the Elephant Man makeup Christopher Tucker were second to none. Though at times difficult, and arduous, everything somehow aligned into a common deep timeless purpose.

The story follows the later life of Merrick from the age of 21. It doesn’t actually stay to the true chronology of the real story, and is slightly reworked to emphasise a much more powerful message of exploitation, tolerance, dignity and ultimate humanity. A deeply affecting and moving work, it is simply stunning despite the up to 12 hours a day of makeup and prosthetics on Hurt, the palpable and breath stopping vulnerability of his performance shines through his eyes , and every single misshapen gesture.
This performance is matched with everyone around him, and in particular Hopkins, who when truly meeting, seeing Merrick for the first time, also solely in his eyes, gives one of the finest performances ever on film, as the entire human experience traverses his pupils right in front of us.The film is an emotional steam fair ride, pitch perfect in every way, with a staggering visual (and sound) approach by Lynch that tight rope walks between some of his most bizarre visuals, as well as his most touchingly and accessibly raw. There are elements here that have permeated his entire career, and in particular foreshadow some of the extraordinary work in the return of Twin Peaks in 2017. Freddie Francis later went on to do the cinematography of The Straight Story even though he was in his 80s.

Like the subject, it’s unique, and it’s the synchronicity of the two, the story and how the story is told that swiftly waves it past all the checkpoints into masterpiece territory. This new Blu-ray release is a simply gorgeous 4K restoration supervised by Lynch himself, from the original camera negative, which together with the sound production is mesmerising.
And it doesn’t end there. There’s a carnival of extras on the second disc with numerous fascinating interviews with Lynch, Hurt and custodians of Merrick’s artifacts, which are illuminating to say the very least, though in particular in regards laying out the factual events of his life. There’s also a Collector’s Edition with a 64-page booklet and art cards available. What more could you possibly want, besides Lynch coming round and pressing play.

Given the current global pandemic, where all our experiences of life are being forced through new, often confusing and frightening prisms, watching this movie again after so many years, only heightened the reviewing experience. There’s a great deal of suffering going on across the world at the moment, and an overwhelming amount of humanity. Seeing the tenderness at the core of this movie only made an already incredibly poignant movie, all the more powerfully and vital.

10/10 The Elephant Man is available on Digital, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD Collector’s Edition. Buy it, and stay home to watch it, keeping yourself and others safe, sharing our humanity.