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Elephant Man, The (1980)


Main image of Elephant Man, The (1980)
35mm, black and white, Panavision, 124 mins
DirectorDavid Lynch
Production CompanyBrooksfilms
ProducerJonathan Sanger
ScreenplayChristopher De Vore
 Eric Bergren
 David Lynch
PhotographyFreddie Francis
MusicJohn Morris

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves); John Hurt (John Merrick); Anne Bancroft (Mrs Madge Kendal); John Gielgud (Carr Gomm); Wendy Hiller (Mothershead); Freddie Jones (Bytes); Michael Elphick (night porter); Hannah Gordon (Mrs Treves)

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The distinguished surgeon Sir Frederick Treves discovers the grotesquely deformed John Merrick in a circus freakshow. Taking him into care at a London hospital, he tries to improve the quality of his life.

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The Elephant Man was a film with an unlikely pedigree. Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (renamed John here), a man who suffered from neurofibromatosis to such an extent that his body was deformed almost beyond recognition as a human being, the screenplay was optioned by the comedian Mel Brooks, who had long wanted to break into serious subjects. The director was David Lynch, whose only previous feature was the semi-amateur, almost unclassifiably strange Eraserhead (US, 1976), and while the film had an Oscar-winning cinematographer, Freddie Francis had last assumed that role sixteen years earlier.

But the end result was a triumph. For all the elements of blood-and-thunder Victorian melodrama, what's most striking about The Elephant Man is its understated good taste. This is helped by an immensely touching performance by John Hurt in the title role, unrecognisable under Christopher Tucker's elaborate make-up.

He's given sterling support from Anthony Hopkins as his mentor Dr Frederick Treves, who is faced with several dilemmas. Is a hospital an appropriate place to house someone who, for all his disabilities, is perfectly healthy? Is he not exploiting Merrick just as much by presenting him to his colleagues, albeit in a far more civilised environment than the squalid freakshow run by Bytes (Freddie Jones)? Indeed, is the film itself partially guilty of exploiting what was then a century-old fascination into Merrick's life?

The answer to the last question is an emphatic "no", as this is one of the most sensitive of all films about disability and difference. Treves says "I pray to God he's an idiot" after discovering the full extent of Merrick's deformity, but rises to the occasion when Merrick's intelligence becomes apparent, even introducing him to Victorian high society. While the first part of the film treats Merrick as an object of curiosity, we quickly come to see the world through his eyes in all its terrifying strangeness. By the time he's pursued by a mob through Liverpool Street Station, our identification with him is complete.

Although this was the most conventional of all Lynch's features until The Straight Story (US, 1999), his hand is unmistakable in the vision of Victorian London as being a hellish labyrinth of clanking, hissing machinery. The opening dream sequence, too, is classic Lynch, a typically oblique presentation of the legend of Merrick's mother being trampled by elephants in pregnancy.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Elephant dream (1:59)
2. The presentation (3:00)
3. Meeting Mrs Kendal (5:00)
Anthony Hopkins: The Guardian Interview (1989)
Coates, Anne V. (1925-)
Elphick, Michael (1946-2002)
Fletcher, Dexter (1966-)
Francis, Freddie (1917-2007)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Gordon, Hannah (1941-)
Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)
Hopkins, Anthony (1937-)
Hurt, John (1940-)
Jones, Freddie (1927-)