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A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man being mistreated by his "owner" as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of great intelligence and sensitivity. Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man in 19th century London.
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The Elephant Man movie full length review - other worldly
Between the surreal dystopia of Eraserhead and the artistic immobility of Dune, and before critics labeled him as the auteur of Weird America with permanent marker, David Lynch directed this strange but true story set in London, England during the late 1800's.
Being one of only two films of his to be based on fact it is far less of a personal work than those generated by the director himself. Despite his sensibilities being contained in a more formal framework his unique aural and visual style (like the sound of blowing wind or the peculiar emphasis of the industrial machinery of the period)clearly comes across, although it's a far cry from the narrative conundrums that comprise Eraserhead, Lost Highway, or Mulholland Dr.
The year before this film was released Bernard Pomerance's play opened on Broadway. This film is not based upon the former work and the latter takes a dramatically divergent path with its namesake subject. One of the most substantial is Merrick's role in his adoptive society once his carnival career is truncated. Pomerance's tale is a tragic one showing us how Merrick becomes caught in the machinery of the repressive and hypocritical society that cultivates him, tempting him with the illusion of normality with the artificial world they erect around him, but ultimately imprisoning him within it. The film depicts Victorian society as a benevolent sanctuary for a man, who while given the props to model himself after the normality he aspires to, is never deceived into thinking he can achieve it beyond his imagination. Merrick's own realization of this is clear in a scene (hauntingly scored by composer John Morris)where he asks his caretaker Treeves if he can cure him. Treeves' reply is no. Merrick's response is of a man who knew the answer all along but still allows himself the indulgence to dream.
Treeves' struggles are similarly reduced. The closest he comes in the film to questioning his motives concerning Merrick is a brief scene where he asks his wife (and audience) if his seemingly charitable act of taking Merrick from his sideshow squalor was possibly something other than altruistic. Pomerance has Treeves questioning the artificial social fabric that's been woven around Merrick and his undeniable complicity in it. The screenwriters seem less concerned with tackling these Victorian dilemmas than focusing on the beauty in the beast theme. Considering Lynch's fascination with organic phenomena this focus seems much more up his alley. In his words Lynch has stated that the eponymous title character is "this beautiful soul trapped in this horrible body and that's what the whole film is about." Yes siree Bob.
Much less effective in the film is the role of the actress Madge Kendall who's really nothing more than a walk on by Anne Bancroft. There is some(even subtly sexual)awkwardness between Merrick and Kendall at the beginning of their meeting together but it ultimately winds up with a scene that feels patronizing towards Merrick and mawkish. It doesn't fit with the earlier tension and Kendall never becomes anything more than a well acted cameo. Much more effective is Merrick's ability to retain the power to disturb the bourgeois society that flocks to see him once he becomes that season's fashionable curiosity. His transformation into a gentrified version of his erstwhile sawdust and calliope music carnival persona still has the same effect on others. In one scene he is serving tea to a noticeably unnerved aristocratic couple who are guests of his. Their cups rattle against their saucers in barely restrained horror as he discusses his mother's beauty in the context of his own deformity. His cherished portrait of his mother becomes an eerily recurring visual motif. She remains a mysterious presence frozen in time. The conflation of Merrick and his mother recalls a line heard early in the film that "life is full of surprises."
Merrick's background remains equally enigmatic. The only glimpse we see of his past are some creepily abstract images during one of his nightmares. Even his beginnings are fictionalized as part of the sideshow spiel recited by his owner Bytes. Treeves' first view of the elephant man is in a private showing by Bytes. He is led down a dark corridor to a room where the terrible freak is kept concealed behind a curtain. Only the flames of a gas lamp illuminate the darkness. Bytes spins a tale of a terrifying encounter between woman and elephant while Treeves stares, mouth agape. The scene has a strange Lynchian spookiness about it.
The costume and production design authentically breathe life into the Victorian era while Freddie Francis' expressionistic monochrome adds both verisimilitude and a sense of an alternative world. These elements together with Lynch's use of both nightmarish and chimerical images, an other worldly atmosphere, pathos and sentiment, make the film a sort of Charles Dickens tale wrapped inside The Twilight Zone with the ethereal touch of a haunting dream. The past a la Lynch.